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By STEFAN MODRICH 

smodrich@fortbendstar.com 

A Richmond resident is among seven alleged participants in a scheme to obtain approximately $16 million in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, according to a Nov. 17 news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Rifat Bajwa, 51, of Richmond; Mauricio Navia, 41, of Katy; Amir Aqeel, 52, and Pardeep Basra, 51, both of Houston; Mayer Misak, 40, of Cypress; and Richard Reuth, 57, of Spring were all charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The indictment also charges Aqeel with three counts of money laundering.

Federal agents executed 45 seizure warrants in conjunction with the case, according to the Department of Justice. Some of the items seized included a Porsche and a Lamborghini allegedly purchased with illegally obtained funds.

“These defendants allegedly participated in a scheme to capitalize on the pandemic by filing at least 80 fraudulent PPP applications and enriching themselves by $16 million, spending it on luxury items such as a Porsche and Lamborghini automobiles,” acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s criminal division said in a news release. “The department and our law enforcement partners will continue to aggressively pursue those who would seek to illegally exploit the ongoing national emergency for their own benefit.”

The CARES Act is a federal law designed to provide emergency financial assistance to Americans who are suffering the economic effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The defendants made their initial appearances before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew M. Edison of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Nov. 18.

Trial attorneys Louis Manzo and Della Sentilles of the criminal division’s fraud section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Rodolfo Ramirez and Kristine Rollinson for the Southern District of Texas are prosecuting the case.

Siddiq Azeemuddin, 41, of Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, was also named in the indictment, the Justice Department said in a news release. He also faces charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. Azeemuddin appeared Nov. 17 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Heather K. McShain of the Northern District of Illinois.

The indictment alleges the defendants laundered a portion of the fraudulent proceeds by writing checks from companies that received PPP loans issued to fake employees. Those that allegedly received checks included some of the defendants and their relatives, according to the charges. The fake paychecks were then allegedly cashed at Fascare International Inc., which was doing business as Almeda Discount Store at 10150 Almeda Genoa Road in Houston – a check-cashing company Azeemuddin owned, according to the justice department.

According to documents The Fort Bend Star obtained from the Texas Comptroller’s office and the Texas Secretary of State, Azeemuddin is listed as the president and director of Fascare International, which lists a Richmond address — 21119 Prairie Green Court — and a phone number with a Chicago area code (630). The company incorporated on Feb. 6, 2014, according to the Texas Secretary of State.

The indictment alleges that more than 1,100 fake paychecks totaling more than $3 million in fraudulent PPP loan proceeds were cashed at Azeemuddin’s business.

“Some fraudsters create the most complicated schemes to steal money from the taxpayer,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick of the Southern District of Texas said in a news release. “Just imagine how productive they could be if they put their creativity and effort into noble and useful work. With the great work of so many partner agencies, we will bring to justice those who steal from the treasury.”

The indictment further alleges the defendants conspired to submit more than 80 fraudulent PPP loan applications by falsifying the number of employees and the average monthly payroll expenses of the applicant businesses. In support of these fraudulent loan applications, they allegedly conspired to submit, and did submit, fraudulent bank records and/or fake federal tax forms, according to the charges. Some of the PPP loan applications were allegedly submitted on behalf of companies the defendants controlled.

“These defendants are alleged to have defrauded a program intended to assist hardworking Americans who have been unfairly impacted as a result of this unprecedented and challenging health crisis,” Special Agent in Charge Mark B. Dawson of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Houston said in a news release. “HSI remains committed to working with our law enforcement partners to bring every asset to bear against anyone who seeks to take advantage of the pandemic to deliberately harm and deceive others for their own profit.”

Other loan applications were submitted on behalf of entities that third-parties allegedly owned, according to the indictment. Several of the defendants allegedly received large kickbacks in exchange for the applications, according to the charges.

The Department of Homeland Security requests that the public contact it with any further information regarding this ongoing investigation at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE. Anyone with general information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud 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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