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6-Year Prison Term for Woman Who Used COVID-19 Relief Money on Cosmetic Surgery and Luxury Getaway

During her stay in Florida, the accused Bethea used around $5,500 of PPP funds to finance an elective cosmetic procedure.
Cover Image Source: Pexels/RDNE Stock project
Cover Image Source: Pexels/RDNE Stock project

A Tennessee woman named Leslie Bethea has been sentenced to over six years in federal prison and an additional three years of supervised release for her involvement in a case of fraud related to COVID relief funds. Bethea, a 30-year-old resident of Surgoinsville, Tennessee, has been found guilty of obtaining fraudulent coronavirus relief money and using it for personal luxuries, including cosmetic surgery and a lavish stay at the Trump resort in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. This case serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of misusing federal funds intended to aid those affected by the pandemic.

Sen. Angus King (I-ME) sets up a sign alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on December 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. The roughly $908 billion proposal includes $288 billion in small business aid such as Paycheck Protection Program loans, $160 billion in state and local government relief and $180 billion to fund a $300 per week supplemental unemployment benefit through March, according to a draft framework. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Sen. Angus King (I-ME) sets up a sign alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a COVID-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on December 01, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Bethea's legal troubles began when she was indicted in June, facing federal charges that included wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements. As the U.S. Department of Justice revealed in a news release, Bethea ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of making a false statement to a probation officer. Her actions have now resulted in a substantial prison sentence and a significant financial penalty.

Modus operandi to gain COVID-19 relief fund

The crux of the case revolves around Bethea's fraudulent application for a loan under the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a government-backed small business loan initiative designed to assist struggling companies during the pandemic. Bethea managed to secure $20,805 in PPP funds, despite her unqualified status. Prosecutors alleged that Bethea's loan application contained false information, including an inflated income of $99,835 for the year 2019, accompanied by fabricated tax documents intended to substantiate this claim. Additionally, Bethea stated that she had no prior convictions for fraud offenses in the previous five years, a statement that was subsequently proven false.

The gravity of Bethea's actions is accentuated by the fact that she was incarcerated in Tennessee for the entirety of 2019. Moreover, she entered a period of mandatory supervised release in October 2020, during which she was required to submit accurate monthly reports to her probation officer. These factors highlight the audacity of Bethea's attempt to manipulate the system and secure funds to which she was not entitled.

Image Source: Pexels | Aleksejs Bergmanis
Image Source: Pexels | Aleksejs Bergmanis

After obtaining the PPP funds, Bethea's financial records showed that she embarked on a trip to Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, in April of the following year. She booked accommodations at the Trump International Beach Resort, incurring a cost of more than $2,800, which she paid for with the fraudulently obtained funds. Additionally, during her stay in Florida, Bethea used around $5,500 of PPP funds to finance an elective cosmetic procedure, further underscoring the egregious nature of her actions.

Beyond the misuse of federal funds, Bethea also violated the terms of her supervised release by making false statements to her probation officer. The criminal complaint filed against her details how she knowingly submitted a falsified monthly supervision report in May 2021, which was a breach of her obligations under the supervised release terms. The gravity of this offense was emphasized by the signed waiver that Bethea acknowledged, explicitly warning of the potential consequences of providing false statements, including a prison sentence of up to five years, a hefty fine of $250,000, or both.

Image Source: Wera Rodsawang/Getty Images
Wera Rodsawang | Getty Images

The case of Leslie Bethea serves as a poignant example of the repercussions of misusing federal funds intended to alleviate the financial strain brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. As countless individuals and businesses continue to grapple with the economic consequences of the ongoing health crisis, acts of fraud and misuse of relief funds have gone up. These actions divert much-needed resources away from those who genuinely require assistance, hindering the collective efforts to mitigate the pandemic's adverse impact on the economy.

Bethea's sentencing should serve as a stern warning to potential wrongdoers contemplating the misuse of federal relief programs. The justice system is actively pursuing individuals who exploit these programs for personal gain and will hold them accountable for their actions. Society needs to foster a climate of trust and integrity when it comes to managing and distributing relief funds. In times of crisis, the collective well-being of communities relies on the ethical and responsible handling of resources earmarked for those in need.