North Miami neighbors claimed to be farmers to get COVID-19 relief. Feds gave them $1 million

©Miami Herald

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MIAMI — As the coronavirus spread havoc in South Florida, prosecutors say Latoya Stanley and Johnny Philus hauled in $1 million in federal relief loans while claiming they were struggling to operate a beauty supply store, an auto leasing business and a couple of farms in North Miami.

Their loan applications were all made up, the feds say — especially the part that they were “farmers” on tiny residential lots in the urban community.

Stanley, 38, and Philus, 33, were arrested Wednesday. They are charged with committing wire fraud and making false statements when they applied for Small Business Administration loans under a new federal program that provides financial assistance to businesses ailing from the impact of COVID-19. Both were released on a $100,000 bond and face arraignment on Sept. 9 in Miami federal court.

“The Department of Justice has been casting a wide net charging these SBA loan fraud cases, and I look forward to discovering if this is an example of that net having been cast too wide,” Philus’ attorney, Bradley Horenstein, said Thursday.

Stanley’s lawyer, the federal public defender’s office, could not be reached for comment.

As in a half-dozen similar federal fraud cases filed during the pandemic, the two defendants’ SBA loan applications were approved by a local bank before being guaranteed by the federal agency. The two North Miami neighbors claimed they operated businesses with dozens of employees and payrolls of millions of dollars — before their four loan applications were approved. The bank, which reviewed their Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications, was not identified in a criminal complaint.

“In actuality, the complaint alleges that Stanley and Philus employed no one and the farms did not exist,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In their government loan applications filed in May and June, Stanley and Philus claimed to operate two businesses — Dream Gurl Beauty Supply and Elegance Auto Boutique — out of a duplex building on one-sixth of an acre at 1275 NE 118th St.

State records show that both businesses were inactive. However, the beauty store said it had 18 employees with $200,000 worth of inventory, while the auto business said it had 29 employees and leased a fleet of 40 to 50 cars worth a $1 million, according to the criminal complaint filed by federal prosecutor Brooke Watson.

Stanley also claimed she ran a “farm” at 1275 NE 118th St., and Philus said he operated another “farm” at 535 NW 127th St., another small residential lot in North Miami.

Dream Gurl’s received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $302,860 to cover payroll guaranteed by the SBA, and Elegance Auto received a PPP loan of $538,325 also secured by the federal agency, according to the complaint.

In addition, Stanley’s purported farm received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan for $137,500 to cover other business expenses, and Philus’ farm received $150,000 under the same program.

This spring, Congress allocated nearly $650 billion for SBA-guaranteed loans to American businesses to cover employee payrolls and other expenses such as rent — loans issued by banks and forgiven by the government if used for the right purposes.

But the program has been exploited by certain applicants, authorities said, including a Miami man who obtained $4 million in SBA loans for his moving company and spent a chunk of the money on a Lamborghini.

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©2020 Miami Herald