Defendant Pleads Guilty to Theft of Funds in Connection with COVID-19 Fraud Case
LAFAYETTE, La. - Acting United States Attorney Alexander C. Van Hook announced that Burnell Gabriel Zachary, 37, of Arnaudville, Louisiana, has pleaded guilty before United States Magistrate Judge Carol Whitehurst to receiving Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments to which he was not entitled.
According to information presented to the court, agents with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General (USDA), began an investigation in October 2020 after receiving information that Zachary submitted a fraudulent application to obtain monetary benefits through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). The CFAP was established to provide monetary benefits for agricultural producers whose operations were directly impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. Eligible producers included those who suffered a 5% or greater decline, or who had losses due to market supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19. The CFAP provided direct relief to livestock producers.
The investigation concerning Zachary revealed that he had submitted a CFAP application via email on June 15, 2020 claiming that his livestock business sustained significant losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zachary made false and fraudulent claims as to his cattle inventory at Zachary’s Ranch, LLC, and received payments from the USDA of over $70,000 due to those claims. Zachary admitted to making the false misrepresentations in the CFAP application and receiving over $70,000 in benefits and depositing them into his checking account.
“The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and others similar to it were created to assist those who are truly in need of financial assistance following the difficulties that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused,” stated Acting U.S. Attorney Alexander C. Van Hook. “When individuals try to defraud the system like this, it takes benefits from others who have suffered genuine losses. COVID-19 fraud is one of the top priorities of this office and we will continue to work with our federal agency partners to hold these defendants accountable for their cheating ways.”
“The USDA COVID-19 food assistance programs were meant to keep food on tables during this unprecedented time,” said Dax Roberson, Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Office of Inspector General. “This prosecution should send a strong zero-tolerance message to those opportunistic fraudsters who would take advantage of a national emergency to enrich themselves.”
Zachary faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, 3 years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General, is investigating the case and Assistant U.S. Attorney Danny Siefker is prosecuting the case.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information on the Department of Justice’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
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