Sept. 11 (UPI) -- The Justice Department has charged dozens of people with trying to defraud hundreds of millions of dollars from a government loan program created to aid small businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brian Rabbitt, the acting assistant attorney general, told reporters Thursday 57 people have been charged since early May with attempting to steal $175 million from the Paycheck Protection Program.
Part of the $2 trillion CARES Act in March, the PPP offered U.S. businesses low interest and forgivable loans to pay employees and to keep them on payrolls amid the pandemic that's caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs.
"The PPP represented critical help at a critical time," Rabbitt said. "Unfortunately, almost every crisis brings out not only those who seek to help others, but also those who try to exploit the situation for their own unlawful purposes and financial gain."
Of the $175 million stolen, the government has incurred a loss of $70 million. Authorities have so far been able to recover of freeze about $30 million, but Rabbitt said that amount should rise with additional seizures.
The acting assistant attorney general said the accused attempted to steal as little as $30,000 and as much as $24 million and fall into one of two categories -- those who lied about owning businesses or claimed they needed the money to pay employees and those in organized criminal rings.
Television personality Maurice Fayne, one of the first charged with attempting to defraud the federal government, falls into the first category as he received nearly $1.5 million to pay his 107 employees but instead spent it on jewelry, a Rolex watch and tens of thousands of dollars in child support, the Justice Department said in a statement in May.
In the other category, prosecutors on Thursday charged 11 people, including NFL wide receiver Josh Bellamy, for their role in a scheme to try and steal $24 million from the government through submitting falsified documents.
"The involvement of these rings is unsurprising, but it is particularly troubling, and we will be focusing on these types of cases going forward," he said.
Banks have been tasked with disseminating the majority of the loans, and have come under scrutiny due to their administration of the loans.
Amid reports that employees of JPMorgan Chase have participated in misuse of the PPP, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent a letter Thursday to James Dimon, its chief executive officer, calling for a full investigation into the allegations.
"Financial institutions, like yours, are on the front lines of providing PPP assistance," Rubio wrote.
Rabbitt said while Thursday represented a significant milestone, there is still more work ahead for his office.
"Let me just end with what I hope will be an unmistakable message to those who might consider abusing programs like the PPP that provide critical lifelines for American business and American Workers: You will be identified. You will be held accountable. You will face the severest of consequences for trying to exploit your fellow Americans' suffering for your own personal gain," he said.