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Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida announced charges Thursday against 17 Broward Sheriff’s Office employees, saying they defrauded the federal government out of half a million dollars.

They were charged with providing false information regarding their eligibility for financial assistance provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funds were distributed through the U.S. Small Business Administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. The defendants included deputies and corrections officers, said prosecutors.

The cases are separate and do not stem from one “ring-leader” as is common in these cases, according to prosecutors. All 17 appeared in federal court in Fort Lauderdale and received bond. They will be arraigned next week.

“Law enforcement officers stand in a position of trust to the members of the public who they serve, an officer engaged in criminal activity, whether it occurs on duty or off duty, undermines this very trust,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe.

The BSO employees allegedly defrauded two large COVID- 19 relief initiatives: the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.

The SBA released numbers last June that showed more than $200 billion may have been stolen from the coronavirus-related programs.

A report from the administration’s inspector generalsaid “at least 17 percent of all COVID-EIDL and PPP funds were disbursed to potentially fraudulent actors.”

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Former President Donald Trump rolled out the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses stay open and keep their workers employed. President Joe Biden maintained the program and directed money to more low-income and minority-owned companies. All told, $800 billion was spent on it.

South Florida — a cradle for fraudsters — has been home to more than 180 defendants charged with lying to obtain pandemic relief benefits.

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony said his internal investigation started in 2021, when he called on the department’s inspector general to review all 5,500 employees.

The department found that 100 of them applied for PPP loans and handed the case off to the federal prosecutors.

“This is theft from the American people. There’s 2 million people in this county, those employees stole from those 2 million people as far as I’m concerned,” Tony said at Tuesday’s press conference with prosecutors.

Most of the employees have been suspended without pay, according to BSO records, one resigned. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said they aren’t done with their investigation and more charges may be coming.

Gerard Albert

Gerard Albert is WLRN's Broward County Reporter. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Gerard Albert is WLRN's Broward County Reporter. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.