Two women from Wilson are the latest North Carolinians to plead guilty to fraudulently obtaining Paycheck Protection Act (PPP) loans in a nationwide multi-million COVID-19 fraud scheme. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Eastern District of North Carolina, Lenille Mitia Woodard, 36, and Irene Nicole Edwards, 35, each pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in obtaining the loans before United States Magistrate Judge Robert T. Numbers II.

Woodard and Edwards sought relief on behalf of companies they owned, purportedly being engaged in event promotion and a beauty salon.

The women are among fifteen defendants who pleaded guilty in this scheme in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

According to the charged criminal information, the defendants conspired with Edward Whitaker, Schunda Coleman, and others to obtain a fraudulent PPP loan. 

Whitaker and Coleman, a Texas couple, pled guilty on January 19, 2023, for their role in operating a nationwide scheme to help people across the country commit millions of dollars of PPP fraud.

According to charging documents and information summarized in court, Whitaker and Coleman created fraudulent supporting documents and applications for the PPP loans, which they provided to the defendants in exchange for 25% of the total loan proceeds. The fraudulent applications falsified the number of employees and gross wages being paid before the COVID pandemic to help qualify for the PPP loans. Following the disbursement of the PPP loans, Whitaker instructed each defendant as to how to make it appear that the PPP loans were being paid out to employees when in reality, the money was transferred back to the defendants. The fraudulent payroll records were then submitted to the Small Business Administration (SBA) to obtain 100% loan forgiveness.

Late last year, Quentin Jackson pled guilty in the same conspiracy, which included the recruitment of numerous individuals in the Eastern District of North Carolina to use Whitaker and Coleman to obtain fraudulent PPP funds. Jackson, from Cary, conspired with others to obtain fraudulent PPP loans in the names of several companies under Jackson’s control. 

In March, Nekita Donyae Hooks, 44, also of Wilson, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud for fraudulently obtaining a PPP loan. Denise Coit Alston, 69; Monica Faye Barnes, 51; Terron Cortez Parker, 37; and Kami D. Woodard, 37, each pleaded guilty to the same charge in April.

“These defendants, along with their co-conspirators, chose to steal from a taxpayer-funded program designed to help small businesses stay afloat in the face of a global and devastating pandemic,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Easley in the press release. “My office is continuing to investigate and prosecute those who used this lifeline to line their own pockets.”

Tristan Bishop Pan, 40, of Garner, was sentenced in March 2022 to 20 months in prison for fraudulently obtaining over $1.7 million in PPP loans.

He submitted numerous fraudulent PPP loan applications to federally insured banks, including on behalf of entities named Pan Insurance Agency, White Walker, Khaleesi, and The Night’s Watch.

According to court documents, Pan submitted at least 14 PPP loan applications seeking more than $6.1 million and received more than $1.7 million in benefits. Pan pleaded guilty to wire fraud in August 2021. The documents do not list a connection to the scheme involving Whitaker and Coleman.

More than $200 billion or 17% in potentially fraudulent COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs), EIDL Targeted Advances, Supplemental Targeted Advances, and PPP loans have been paid out, according to the SBA. Nearly $30 billion in COVID-19 EIDL and PPP funds have been seized or returned to SBA.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was designed to provide emergency financial assistance to the millions of Americans who were economically suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act and additional appropriations authorized up to $649 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Financial institutions issued the PPP loans, which were guaranteed by the SBA.

“Through our partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our federal law enforcement partners, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agents will continue to aggressively pursue individuals who try to exploit federal relief programs for their personal gain,” said Donald “Trey” Eakins, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge in the Charlotte Field Office.

Sentencings will occur before United States District Judge James C. Dever III later this year. All defendants face up to 20 years in prison.