99 Days for Rogue, One Day for Master -Ellen Corkrum “Guilty” of Stealing COVID-19 Funds for US Small Businesses

The long-running legal battle between the Government of Liberia and the indicted former Managing Director of the Liberia Airport Authority (LAA) which started in 2013 ended abruptly when state lawyers under the George Weah-led government dropped all charges against the Grand Jury of Montserrado County, an indictment that charged Ms. Ellen Corkrum for Economic Sabotage, Theft of Property, Criminal Conspiracy and Misapplication of Entrusted Property. But just as the saying goes that the leopard can never change its spots, so has Ms. Corkrum’s hands being caught in the cookie jar, this time around, bravely stealing funds from the United States Government, meant for enabling struggling businesses to make ends meet during these trying COVID-19 pandemic times.

According to authorities of the United States Government Department of Justice (DOJ) quoting court documents, Ellen Corkrum who fled justice in Liberia during the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf regime, and was later recalled by the Weah government for siphoning state funds to her own benefit, but was later acquitted by the Weah government, pleaded guilty on August 18, 2021 for perpetrating a scheme to fraudulently obtain more than $7.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The US Department of Justice furthered that Ellen Corkrum who later changed her name to Hunter VanPelt submitted six fraudulent PPP loan applications to four different lenders on behalf of entities she owned or controlled, namely: Georgia Nephrology Physician Associated, United Healthcare Group & Co., Nephrology Network Group LLC, First Corporate International, Corkrum Consolidated Inc., and Kiwi International Inc. Through the six PPP loan applications, VanPelt fraudulently sought more than $7.9 million in PPP loan funds, of which more than $6 million was disbursed to accounts controlled by VanPelt.

“VanPelt falsely represented the number of employees and payroll expenses in each of the six PPP loan applications. To support the fraudulent PPP loan applications, VanPelt submitted fraudulent tax records, bank statements, and payroll reports. VanPelt, who legally changed her name from Ellen Corkrum to Hunter VanPelt in July 2016, submitted three of the PPP loan applications using the VanPelt name and three additional PPP loan applications using the Corkrum name,” the DOJ disclosed in a press release issued 18 August.

The DOJ stated further that while working with law enforcement partners, approximately $2.1 million of the disbursed PPP funds were recovered from the thief, and an additional $1.6 million of the disbursed PPP funds were seized by a bank and returned to the lender.

According to the US DOJ: “VanPelt brazenly exploited this devastating national emergency for personal gain, and she is now being held accountable for her fraudulent conduct,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “PPP funds should be reserved for legitimate businesses and their hard-working employees who have suffered economically as a result of the pandemic. The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that anyone who takes advantage of COVID-19 relief programs will be brought to justice.”

“The Paycheck Protection Program helps businesses keep their workforces employed during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine for the Northern District of Georgia. “When these funds are diverted by fraud, such as in this case, workers and the businesses that employ them unfortunately suffer.”

“The Paycheck Protection Program is key to survival for many small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Special Agent in Charge Chris Hacker of FBI Atlanta. “It is particularly disturbing that anyone would try to capitalize off a federal program at those businesses’ expense. The FBI will persist in its efforts to stop such fraud.”

“To support small and community banks, the Federal Home Loan banks can accept Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans as collateral when making loans to their members,” said Special Agent in Charge Edwin S. Bonano of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Office of Inspector General. “The Office of Inspector General is proud to work with our partners in law enforcement to prevent, detect, and deter attempts to perpetrate fraud in the Federal Home Loan Bank System and steal the assistance intended for small business owners and employees under this important part of the CARES Act.”

VanPelt/Corkrum pleaded guilty to bank fraud, according to US Department of Justice authorities, and is slated to be sentenced on January 4, 2022, most likely to face a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors. The FBI and FHFA-OIG are investigating the case.

The DOJ release further informed that trial Attorney Chris Wenger of the National Rapid Response Strike Force of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Huber, Deputy Chief of the Complex Frauds Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, are prosecuting the case.

“The Fraud Section leads the department’s prosecution of fraud schemes that exploit the PPP. In the months since the PPP began, Fraud Section attorneys have prosecuted more than 100 defendants in more than 70 criminal cases. The Fraud Section has also seized more than $65 million in cash proceeds derived from fraudulently obtained PPP funds, as well as numerous real estate properties and luxury items purchased with such proceeds,” the release indicated.

It can be recalled that Ms. Corkrum was indicted by the Grand Jury of Montserrado County in 2013 for Economic Sabotage, Theft of Property, Criminal Conspiracy and Misapplication of Entrusted Property.

The charges were later dropped by Judge Nancy F. Sammy of Criminal Court ‘C’ based on prosecution’s request through a motion to Nolle Prosequoi filed on December 3, 2019.

The Assistant Minister for Litigation at the Ministry of Justice, Cllr. Wesseh A. Wesseh, had argued then that the case had been pending before the court since 2013 without having the opportunity to serve defendant Corkrum with the Indictment or the Writ of Arrest to bring her under the jurisdiction of the court.

“Counsel submits that the defendant along with other defendants in these proceedings, was indicted in 2013 during the November A.D 2013 Term of Court for the crimes of Economic Sabotage, Criminal Conspiracy, Theft of Property and Misapplication of Entrusted property.”

“This Court says that the Republic of Liberia has the responsibility and obligation to institute all criminal charges against an accused person. In keeping with this responsibility, they also have the responsibility to prosecute all crimes in this country. Since it is the Republic of Liberia that indicted the movant and it is the same Republic of Liberia that has come and entered or requested the court to Nolle Prosequoi this case, this court hereby grants the said motion in keeping with Section 18.1 of the criminal Procedure Law.”

According to the Indictment, from October 2012 to February 2013, co-defendants Musa Bility and Ellen K. Corkrum, as former Chairman of the Board of Directors and Managing Director of the Liberia Airport Authority respectfully, organized and engaged in the regulation and supervision of Civil Aviation activities, operating in Montserrado County at the James Sprigg Payne Airport and in Margibi County at the Robert International Airport.

The indictment further revealed that co-defendants Musa Bility and Ellen K. Corkrum, as signatories to the LAA’s account maintained with the Liberian Bank for Development and    Investment (LBDI) criminally conspired with co-defendant Diaspora Consulting Group and the LBDI and defrauded the LAA.

Making unauthorized transfer of funds aggregating to US$269,000 from the accounts of the LAA through LBDI on diverse occasions to the accounts of co-defendant Diaspora Consulting in a bank in America for services which were never rendered by co-defendant Diaspora Consulting Engineering Group.

Co-defendant Diaspora Consulting and SSF Entrepreneur Inc. were submitted to the PPCC by co-defendant Ellen Corkrum to be single sourced for the rehabilitation of the RIA’s runway and other pavements in the combined amount of USD$1,538,333 and USD$1,283,333 proposed for SSF Entrepreneur Inc. and USD$255,000 proposed for Diaspora Consulting, LLC.

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