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December 15, 2021Houston, TX, United StatesCovid-19

4 Houston-area men charged in $35M COVID-19 relief fraud scheme

HOUSTON — A federal grand jury in Houston has returned a superseding indictment against four additional individuals for fraudulently obtaining and laundering millions of dollars in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. The Small Business Administration (SBA) guarantees the loans under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Houston, Texas; SBA - Office of Inspector General (OIG); Federal Housing Finance Agency – OIG; Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – OIG; and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

A total of 15 individuals across two states have now been charged in the conspiracy.

Hamza Abbas, 29, Khalid Abbas, 55, Abdul Fatani, 55, all of Richmond; and Syed Ali, 53, of Sugar Land, are set to make their initial appearances Dec. 16 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew M. Edison.

According to court documents, Hamza Abbas, Khalid Abbas, Fatani and Ali conspired with others to submit more than 80 false and fraudulent PPP loan applications. They allegedly falsified the number of employees and the average monthly payroll expenses of the applicant businesses. In total, the defendants sought over $35 million in PPP loan funds and obtained approximately $18 million in PPP loan proceeds, according to the charges.

The superseding indictment further alleges they laundered a portion of the fraudulent loan proceeds by writing checks from companies that received PPP loans to fake employees. Those that received checks allegedly included some of the defendants and their relatives. The fake paychecks were then allegedly cashed at Fascare International Inc. dba Almeda Discount Store – a check-cashing company. The superseding indictment alleges that over 1,100 fake paychecks totaling more than $3 million in fraudulent PPP loan proceeds were cashed at Almeda.

Previously charged were Amir Aqeel, 53, and Pardeep Basra, 52, both of Houston; Rifat Bajwa, 53, Richmond; Mayer Misak, 41, Cypress; Mauricio Navia, 42, Katy; Richard Reuth, 58, Spring; and Siddiq Azeemuddin, 42, Naperville, Illinois. Aqeel, Bajwa, Basra, Misak, and Navia are also named defendants in the superseding indictment.

Azeemuddin and Reuth have pleaded guilty for their involvement in the scheme. Four others - Abdul Farahshah, 70, Jesus Acosta Perez, 31, and Bijan Rajabi, 68, all of Houston; and Raheel Malik, 41, of Sugar Land - have pleaded guilty for their involvement in the scheme. Malik pleaded guilty to a one-count information charging him with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering on Oct. 8. Farahshah, Perez and Rajabi each pleaded guilty to a one-count information charging them with conspiracy to commit wire fraud on Nov. 30.

The defendants in the superseding indictment are all charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud. Aqeel, Khalid Abbas, Ali and Fatani are also charged with money laundering. Aqeel is also charged with aggravated identity theft and is alleged to have submitted PPP loan applications by stealing the identities of uninvolved parties.

If convicted, the defendants face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison per count of wire fraud and 10 years for each money laundering conviction. If convicted of aggravated identity theft, Aqeel faces a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in addition to the sentence imposed for the other offenses.

Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Rodolfo Ramirez is prosecuting the case along with Trial Attorneys Louis Manzo and Della Sentilles of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. AUSA Kristine Rollinson is handling forfeiture matters.

An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

HSI is a directorate of ICE and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.