Juli Campbell, a Puerto Rico-based developer, faces a December sentencing in federal court after admitting she submitted false payment records to a federal disaster relief program.
The defendant was one of four defendants charged with major disaster fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and identity theft and may now serve up to 30 years in prison.
Campbell, owner of Campbell Development, LLC, appeared in U.S. District Court to plead guilty to one count of disaster fraud. In a hearing before District Judge Curtis Gomez, Campbell said she turned in an invoice she knew to be false for payment under the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power pilot program.
That invoice, in the amount of $109,715.98, was among eight invoices alleged to be false in the Feb. 21 grand jury indictment. Those invoices were submitted between Aug. 12 and Oct. 1, 2018.
The sheltering program, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was approved for use in the Virgin Islands in October 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
In December 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency activated STEP, in which the agency reimburses the territory for basic emergency repairs allowing Virgin Islanders to remain in their homes and communities while permanent repairs are performed.
More than $280 million has been provided to the territory for STEP. The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority administered STEP and called it Emergency Home Repairs V.I.
The indictment alleged Campbell, along with co-defendants Leovigildo Gomez-Geo, Wilfredo Perez and Luz Soraya Rodriguez, concocted a scheme to inflate housing and food allowances approved under the STEP program. Specifically, the grand jury charged the developer with knowingly making false statements and submitting false documentation in the form of time sheets and invoices.
Work done under the program by Campbell Development was carried out in the St. Croix district, according to the indictment.
In court documents, Gomez-Geo is identified as a worker for Campbell Development. Perez and Rodriquez were identified as employees of a separate company, Lopez Investments.
Investigators working with the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that under the scheme, workers brought in under the home repair program would be lodged in multi-occupancy rooms at a reduced rate while the defendants charged STEP the full price for lodging. A similar scheme was allegedly arranged to inflate reimbursements for daily food allowances.
Campbell is the sole defendant charged with disaster fraud. The other three were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. All charges against Gomez-Geo, Perez and Rodriguez were dropped on Friday.
Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 5., where Campbell faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a fine of as much as $1 million.
FEMA’s ability to detect and prevent misuse of disaster relief funds was the subject of a recent report by the U.S. Office of Inspector General. According to a July 30 article published online at Homeland Security Today, the inspector general’s report found severe understaffing in FEMA’s Fraud Prevention and Investigation Branch.
The report also found that 93 percent of FEMA employees, including senior staffers, failed to complete mandatory fraud prevention training programs between April 30, 2017 and May 1, 2018.
Editor’s Note: This has been updated to clarify FEMA’s role in distributing funds to local entities which then contract work done.