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PPP fraud suspects plead ‘not guilty’ in federal court in Omaha

Government sifting through thousands of pages of documents in $2.5 million CARES Act case
Published: May. 26, 2022 at 6:08 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Initial court hearings for most of the 11 people arrested in an investigation into fraudulent CARES Act spending wrapped up late Thursday afternoon with “not guilty” pleas.

The alleged ringleader was the first to face a judge: 58-year-old Ramel Thompson is accused of helping the others fill out forms for the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster loans. Other suspects — Carl Estwick, Jackie Harper, Tarysh G. Hogue, Richard L. Kelly, Henry T. Lewis, Michael A. Perkins, Michael A. Perkins Jr., and Shawn Prater — went before Magistrate Susan Bazis in groups of three.

Investigators say they all took advantage of programs aimed at helping struggling businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of them will be released later Thursday; the government only asked for one of them to be detained.

Family of the defendants packed the federal courtroom Thursday afternoon. Each of the defendants pleaded “not guilty.”

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The government calls this a complex case, alleging the defendants filled out 59 loan applications for up to $7.5 million in requested funds — there are already 4,400 documents to be shared in the case — and that during the 14 locations where search warrants were served Wednesday, they need time to go through all the seized electronics.

Prater, who is a felon and therefore not allowed to have a gun, had an extra entanglement because investigators found a shotgun when raiding his Omaha home. Thursday in court, his defense attorney said it was a family heirloom belonging to his fiance. The judge allowed his release on the promise he will stay out of trouble and show up to future hearings.

Two other suspects connected to the investigation were arrested in other cities: Trevor A. McNeil was arrested by the FBI in Atlanta and Lenfield Kendrick was arrested by agents in Las Vegas.

A conviction on the charge of Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.

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