Western New York Contractors and Two Owners to Pay More Than $3 Million to Settle False Claims Act Allegations

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Alden, New York-based contractors, Zoladz Construction Company Inc. (ZCCI), Arsenal Contracting LLC (Arsenal), and Alliance Contracting LLC (Alliance), along with two owners, John Zoladz of Darien, New York, and David Lyons of Grand Island, New York, have agreed to pay the United States more than $3 million to settle allegations that they violated the False Claims Act by improperly obtaining federal set-aside contracts designated for service-disabled veteran-owned (SDVO) small businesses, the Justice Department announced today.    

“Contracts are set aside for service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses so to afford veterans with service-connected disabilities the opportunity to participate in federal contracting and gain valuable experience to help them compete for future economic opportunities,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “Every time an ineligible contractor knowingly pursues and obtains such set-aside contracts, they are cheating American taxpayers at the expense of service-disabled veterans.”

To qualify as a SDVO small business, a service-disabled veteran must own and control the company.  The United States alleged that Zoladz recruited a service-disabled veteran to serve as a figurehead for Arsenal, which purported to be a legitimate SDVO small business but which was, in fact, managed and controlled by Zoladz and Lyons, neither of whom is a service-disabled veteran.  The United States alleged that Arsenal was a sham company that had scant employees of its own and instead relied on Alliance and ZCCI employees to function.  After receiving numerous SDVO small business contracts, Arsenal is alleged to have subcontracted nearly all of the work under the contracts to Alliance, which was owned by Zoladz and Lyons, and ZCCI, which was owned by Zoladz.  Neither Alliance nor ZCCI were eligible to participate in SDVO small business contracting programs.  Zoladz and Lyons are alleged to have carried out their scheme by, among other things, making or causing false statements to be made to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) regarding Arsenal’s eligibility to participate in the SDVO small business contracting program and the company’s compliance with SDVO small business requirements.

“Detecting and discontinuing fraud, waste, and abuse committed by those who do business with the government remains a core function performed in this Office,” said Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, Jr. for the Western District of New York. “That function, however, takes on additional significance when the target of the fraud is a program designed for the benefit of the heroes among us—our disabled veterans.  Although this investigation did not uncover sufficient evidence to establish criminal liability by these entities and individuals, the multi-million dollar civil judgment ensures that those involved pay a heavy price for their decision to divert to themselves resources intended for the benefit of those who have made supreme sacrifices on behalf of all.”

“This settlement demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, the Department of Justice, and other law enforcement agencies to aggressively pursue individuals and companies that misrepresent themselves as service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses and deny legitimate disabled veterans the opportunity to obtain VA set-aside contracts,” said Inspector General, Michael J. Missal of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General (OIG).  “The VA OIG will continue to work diligently to protect the integrity of this important program, which is designed to aid disabled veterans.  I also want to thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners in this effort.”

“The contracting companies and principals allowed greed to corrupt a federal process intended to benefit service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses,” said Special Agent in Charge Adam S. Cohen of FBI Buffalo Field Office. “The FBI and our partners will continue to identify and investigate companies and individuals who target these types of programs for personal gain.”

The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private individuals to sue on behalf of the government for false claims and to share in any recovery.  The civil lawsuit was filed in the Western District of New York and is captioned United States ex rel. Western New York Foundation for Fair Contracting, Inc. v. Arsenal Contracting, LLC, et al., Case No. 11-CV-0821(S) (W.D.N.Y.).  As part of today’s resolution, the whistleblower will receive $450,000.

“This case is yet another example of the tremendous results achieved through the joint efforts of the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Department of Justice, and partner agencies to uncover and forcefully respond to fraud in Federal Government contracting programs, such as the Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Program in this case,” said Christopher M. Pilkerton, General Counsel of the SBA.  “Identifying and aggressively pursuing instances of civil fraud by participants in these procurement programs is one of SBA’s top priorities.”

“Providing false statements to gain access to federal contracts set aside for service-disabled veterans denies the government opportunities to meet its abiding commitment to our nation’s veterans,” said Acting SBA Inspector General Hannibal “Mike” Ware.  “The SBA’s Office of the Inspector General is committed to bringing those that lie to gain access to SBA’s preferential contracting programs to justice.  I want to thank the Department of Justice for its leadership and dedication to serving justice.”

“There is an obvious need and reason for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses in the government contracting process,” said Director Frank Robey of the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), Major Procurement Fraud Unit.  “Special Agents from Army CID will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to make every contribution possible to bring persons to justice who violate that process.”

This matter was investigated by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York, the FBI, the VA’s Office of Inspector General, the SBA’s Office of Inspector General, and Army CID.

The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.

South Florida Man Charged With Credit Card Fraud And Identity Theft Involving Personal Information From Veterans

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Jacksonville, Florida – Acting United States Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow announces the return of an indictment charging Dwayne Thomas (21, Miami) with one count of credit card fraud and nine counts of identity theft. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in federal prison for the credit card fraud count and up to 5 years’ imprisonment on each of the identity theft counts.

According to the indictment and information presented in court, Thomas was in possession of multiple credit card account numbers from Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and USAA. He also possessed the Social Security numbers of multiple former members of the military who were receiving healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

An indictment is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed one or more violations of federal criminal law, and every defendant is presumed innocent unless, and until, proven guilty.

This case was investigated by the Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General Criminal Investigation Division, the United States Secret Service -Jacksonville Field Office, and the Florida Highway Patrol. It will be prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Kevin C. Frein.

Guardianship Firm and its Principals Charged with Federal Conspiracy, Fraud, Theft and Money Laundering Offenses

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Twenty-Eight Count Indictment Alleges that Co-Founders of Ayudando Guardians, Inc., Embezzled Millions from Client Accounts to Support Lavish Lifestyles

U.S. Marshals Service Assumes Control of Ayudando Guardians, Inc.,

to Ensure Continuity of Services for Special Needs Clients

ALBUQUERQUE – Federal law enforcement officials today announced the filing of conspiracy, fraud, theft and money laundering charges against Ayudando Alpha, Inc., d/b/a “Ayudando Guardians, Inc.” (Ayudando), and its co-founders, Susan Harris, 70, and Sharon Moore, 62, both residents of Albuquerque, N.M. The charges, which are contained in a 28-count indictment, arise out of an alleged decade-long sophisticated scheme to embezzle funds from client trust accounts managed by Ayudando, a non-profit corporation that provides guardianship, conservatorship and financial management services to hundreds of individuals with special needs.

According to the indictment, Ayudando – which means “helping” in Spanish – receives government benefit payments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) on behalf of many of its clients, and acts as a fiduciary or representative payee for these clients by paying their expenses and maintaining the balances for the benefit of the clients. The indictment alleges that Harris and Moore, the primary owners and operators of Ayudando, have embezzled millions of dollars from their special needs clients to support lavish lifestyles for themselves and their families.

The charges against Ayudando, Harris and Moore are the result of an ongoing multi-agency investigation by the FBI, IRS Criminal Investigation, U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), VA Office of Inspector General and SSA Office of Inspector General. This morning federal law enforcement agents arrested Harris and Moore. Harris and Moore made their initial appearances in federal court in Albuquerque this morning. They are scheduled to return to court at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, July 20, 2017, to be arraigned on the indictment and for detention hearings.

Federal authorities also enforced a federal court order that authorized the USMS’s Complex Assets Unit to assume control of Ayudando’s business operations. The court order appoints the USMS as the Receiver and Monitor of Ayudando, including all its financial accounts. The order authorizes the USMS to operate the business to ensure that its assets are not improperly spent or removed, and that the interests of Ayudando clients are protected as the prosecution of the criminal case goes forward. The USMS’s operation of Ayudando will ensure continuity of services for Ayudando clients.

The charges against Ayudando, Harris and Moore were announced by Acting U.S. Attorney James D. Tierney, U.S. Marshal Conrad E. Candelaria, Special Agent in Charge Terry Wade of the Albuquerque Division of the FBI, Special Agent in Charge Ismael Nevarez Jr., of the Phoenix Field Office of IRS Criminal Investigation, Special Agent in Charge Carl D. Scott of the Criminal Investigations Division of the VA’s Office of Inspector General, and Special Agent in Charge Robert Feldt of the Dallas Field Division of the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General.

In making the announcement, Acting U.S. Attorney James D. Tierney said, “This case is all about the victims. The victims in this case relied upon Ayudando to manage their finances and meet their needs. If the allegations in the indictment are true, the principals of Ayudando cruelly violated the trust of their clients and looted their benefits. Federal law enforcement has now stepped in to ensure that the looting stops. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and its partners will conduct this prosecution in a manner that provides for the continued receipt of benefits by Ayudando’s clients, while holding the principals of the company accountable for their conduct.”

“This morning the U.S. Marshals Service assumed control of Ayudando’s business operations to ensure that the victims of the crimes charged in the indictment, which include our disabled veterans, and other Ayudando clients will continue to receive the services they deserve and are entitled to,” said U.S. Marshal Conrad E. Candelaria. “The U.S. Marshals Service also will continue to assist its law enforcement partners in the continuing investigation.”

“Many of our most vulnerable Americans, such as those with special needs, trust fiduciaries to handle their government benefits for them. Unfortunately, there are plenty of criminals willing to steal what could be a person’s only source of income, using the money to support a lavish lifestyle,” said Special Agent in Charge Terry Wade of the FBI’s Albuquerque Division. “The FBI, working with our law enforcement and government partners, is committed to bringing to justice those individuals whose greed destroys the lives and dreams of innocent people.”

“The indictment alleges that, instead of helping people with special needs, the defendants were greedy and helped themselves to their clients’ money,” said Special Agent in Charge Ismael Nevarez Jr., of the Phoenix Field Office of IRS Criminal Investigation. “IRS Criminal Investigation will always investigate individuals who misuse non-profit businesses and cause harm to those whose needs are supposed to be served by those businesses.”

“Professional fiduciaries who defraud vulnerable veterans are reprehensible,” said Special Agent in Charge Carl D. Scott of the Criminal Investigations Division of the VA Office of Inspector General. “The VA OIG will continue to work with other law enforcement agencies to expose those who harm veterans or exploit VA benefits systems and bring them to justice.”

“The SSA OIG is committed to investigating cases of suspected representative payee fraud, which can involve the theft of government funds and harm some of our most vulnerable citizens,” said Special Agent in Charge Robert Feldt of the Dallas Field Division of the SSA Office of the Inspector General. “We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office on this case.”

The 28-count indictment, which was filed under seal on July 11, 2017 and was unsealed and publicly posted earlier today, includes two conspiracy counts, ten counts of mail fraud, nine counts of aggravated identify theft and six counts of money laundering. According to the indictment, from Nov. 2006, when Harris and Moore founded Ayudando, and continuing until July 2017, Ayudando, Harris and Moore embezzled millions of dollars from Ayudando client accounts to cover their personal expenses and support lavish lifestyles for themselves and their families. The indictment alleges that Harris and Moore perpetuated the embezzlement scheme by:

  • Establishing Ayudando as a non-profit corporation in Nov. 2006, to position it as a guardian, conservator, fiduciary and representative payee for individuals needing assistance with their financial affairs;
  • Setting up client trust and company bank accounts which only they controlled;
  • Transferring funds from client accounts to Ayudando company accounts;
  • Using client funds to pay off more than $4 million in charges on a company credit card account used by Harris, Moore and their families for personal purposes;
  • Writing checks from Ayudando company accounts to themselves, cash and to cover personal expenses;
  • Replenishing depleted client accounts with funds taken from other clients;
  • Mailing fraudulent statements and certifications to the VA; and
  • Forging and submitting forged bank statements to the VA.

The indictment identifies some of the ways in which Harris and Moore used the money they allegedly stole from Ayudando clients. For example, the indictment alleges that between June 2011 and March 2014, Harris wrote 12 checks in the total amount of $457,883 on the Ayudando client reimbursement account for personal purpose, including a $50,950 check made out to Mercedes Benz of Albuquerque and a $26,444 check made out to Myers RV Center. It also alleges that between Jan. 2013 and Feb. 2017, Harris used an Ayudando company credit card to pay $140,790 to cover luxury vacations for herself and others, including cruises in the Caribbean isles and a “Final Four” basketball junket, while knowing that Moore would pay off the charges using client funds.

The mail fraud charges in the indictment describe some of the fraudulent documents allegedly mailed by Ayudando, Harris and Moore to the VA to perpetuate and conceal their embezzlement scheme. For example, between Jan. 2016 and Nov. 2016, Moore allegedly mailed fraudulent documents to the VA that falsely represented the balances in ten client accounts. According to the indictment, the documents falsely claimed that the ten client accounts had an aggregate balance of $1,906,908, when the actual value of the ten accounts was only $72,281. The ten client accounts identified in the indictment are examples of the fraud allegedly perpetrated by the defendants as part of their embezzlement scheme.

According to the indictment, Ayudando, Harris and Moore also engaged in aggravated identify theft by using their clients’ names, dates of birth, Social Security Numbers and VA file numbers to commit mail fraud offenses. Harris and Moore also allegedly committed money-laundering offenses by using $392,623 from the Ayudando client reimbursement account to pay off balances on a company credit card used by the defendants and their families for personal purposes. The indictment includes forfeiture provisions that seek forfeiture to the United States of any proceeds and property involved in, or derived from, the defendants’ unlawful conduct.

If the defendants are convicted on the crimes charged in the indictment, they face the following maximum statutory penalties:

  • Count 1, conspiracy – 30 years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine;
  • Counts 2-11, mail fraud – 30 years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine;
  • Counts 12-21, aggravated identity theft – a mandatory two-years of imprisonment that must be served consecutive to any other sentence imposed on other counts and a $250,000 fine;
  • Counts 22-27, money laundering – ten years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine or twice the amount of the property involved in the crime; and
  • Count 28, conspiracy to commit money laundering – ten years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine or twice the amount of the property involved in the crime.

The Albuquerque offices of the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation conducted the investigation, which resulted in the charges in the indictment, and are leading the continuing investigation. The Complex Assets Unit and the Albuquerque office of the USMS, the Criminal Investigations Division of the VA Office of Inspector General, and the Dallas Field Division of the SSA Office of Inspector General are assisting in the investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeremy Peña and Brandon L. Fyffe are prosecuting the case.

Ayudando clients or family members of Ayudando clients who need to speak with someone about their accounts or expenses should call Ayudando, which is now being operated by the U.S. Marshals Service, at 505-332-4357.

Starting tomorrow, information about the federal investigation into Ayudando, including the indictment and the federal court order, will be available at www.justice.gov/usao-nm/ayudando-guardians. Also starting tomorrow, Ayudando clients can direct their comments or concerns to the U.S. Attorney’s Office at USANM.Ayudando@usdoj.gov(link sends e-mail) or 505-346-6902.

Charges in indictment are merely allegations and defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

 

Ayudando Indictment