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Acting U.S. Attorney Levy Forecasts False Claims Act COVID Cases Targeting Private Lenders Of CARES Act Loans That Failed In Their Obligation To Safeguard Government Funds

Acting U.S. Attorney Joshua Levy discussed the enforcement priorities for the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) during a Q&A session on May 29, 2024, and made clear that the historical focus of the office remains the top priority: detecting and combating health care fraud, waste, and abuse. In particular, both Levy and Chief of the USAO’s Civil Division, Abraham George, have recently indicated that the government will pursue large dollar COVID fraud cases both criminally and civilly. As we have discussed previously, we expect False Claims Act (FCA) COVID cases to materialize in the coming years as the government zeroes in on wrongdoers via enhanced data analytics and AI tools as well as via traditional investigative methods and the forthcoming Whistleblower Rewards Program.

Recent COVID FinTech Lender, Kabbage, $120 MM False Claims Act Settlement

The recent Kabbage settlement is illustrative of the types of COVID cases the office is looking to bring pursuant to the FCA. Acting U.S. Attorney Levy discussed the settlement, publicized in May, with now-bankrupt online lender, Kabbage Inc. Kabbage allegedly knowingly processed and submitted thousands of false claims for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness, loan guarantees, and processing fees. The PPP – a loan program for small businesses created via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – was administered the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). The CARES Act authorized private lenders to approve PPP loans for eligible borrowers who could later seek forgiveness for the loans if borrowers used the loans for eligible expenses, including employee payroll.

Among other things, participating PPP lenders were obligated to 1) confirm borrowers’ average monthly payroll costs by PPP loan documentation; and 2) follow applicable Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) requirements. SBA guaranteed any unforgiven or defaulted PPP loans as long as the private lender adhered to PPP requirements.

Private lenders received a fixed fee calculated as a percentage of the loan amount. Here, U.S. Attorney Levy’s office alleged that Kabbage awarded inflated and fraudulent loans to maximize its profits, then sold its assets and left the remaining company financially depleted, leading to bankruptcy. Kabbage was allegedly aware of the following errors as of April 2020, failed to correct them, and continued to make improper loan disbursements after learning of the issues:

  1. double-counting state and local taxes paid by employees when calculating gross wages;
  2. failing to exclude annual compensation above $100,000 per employee; and
  3. improperly calculating employee leave and severance payments.

Kabbage also allegedly failed to implement appropriate fraud controls to comply with the PPP, BSA, and AML by knowingly:

  1. removing underwriting steps to facilitate processing a high volume of loan applications and maximizing loan processing fees;
  2. setting substandard fraud check thresholds;
  3. relying on automated tools that were inadequate in identifying fraud;
  4. devoting insufficient personnel to conduct fraud reviews;
  5. discouraging its fraud reviewers from requesting information from borrowers to substantiate their loan requests; and
  6. submitting to the SBA thousands of dubious PPP loan applications that were fraudulent or highly suspicious.

The settlement, which will result in the U.S. securing up to $120 million pursuant to bankruptcy proceedings, resolves qui tam complaints brought by two separate whistleblowers: an accountant who submitted PPP loan applications to multiple lenders and a former analyst in Kabbage’s collection department.

Predictions for Future COVID Fraud Enforcement

Acting U.S. Attorney Levy’s comments make clear that we can expect to see FCA COVID cases targeting private lenders of CARES Act loans that failed in their obligation to safeguard government funds. To date, COVID fraud prosecution has largely targeted “low-hanging fruit” criminal cases, such as those involving submission of false information to obtain COVID relief funding that the recipient spends on luxury items. We discussed in April that the COVID Fraud Enforcement Task Force (CFETF) and a bipartisan group of Senators had, via a report and draft legislation, pleaded with Congress to increase funding to prosecute COVID fraud. Investigations such as those involving Kabbage require a large investment of resources and, as U.S. Attorney Levy commented, his office must prioritize large-dollar COVID fraud cases most likely to result in specific and general fraud deterrence.

As we have written previously, the government is playing a long game tracking COVID fraud. The Justice Department’s CFETF reported in April that to date, the DOJ had seized or forfeited $1.4 billion in stolen relief funds as well as bringing criminal charges against 3,500 defendants and 400 civil settlements. With a ten-year statute of limitations and increasingly more accurate data analytics tools, we expect the DOJ will continue to identify and recover misappropriated funds from large and lower dollar fraudsters. So long as COVID fraud enforcement remains a well-funded priority of the government, we anticipate a steady stream of FCA COVID settlements involving lenders and borrowers. The government is casting a wide net to recoup the nearly $300 billion in COVID fraud estimates. We will continue to monitor and report on developments.

©1994-2024 Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. All Rights Reserved.
by: Eoin P. Beirne , Jane Haviland of Mintz
For more on COVID, visit the NLR Coronavirus News section.

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