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Army soldier stole millions in COVID relief and student loans in Georgia, feds say

Judge's gavel. (Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau/U.S. Air Force)

A U.S. Army soldier admitted to leading a “prolific” plot in which more than $4.5 million worth of COVID-19 relief and student loans were stolen while stationed at a base in Georgia, federal prosecutors said.

As part of her fraud scheme, the soldier and co-conspirators claimed to be permanently disabled veterans on more than a dozen fake disability applications sent to the U.S. Department of Education — allowing them to steal over $1 million in federal student loans, according to court documents.

The soldier stationed at Fort Stewart, 39-year-old Dara Buck, pleaded guilty to an information charging her with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia said in a July 15 news release. She is from Ladson, South Carolina.

Buck also admitted to submitting more than 150 fake Paycheck Protection Program applications under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, “resulting in more than $3.5 million in fraudulent disbursements,” prosecutors said.

McClatchy News contacted Buck’s attorneys for comment on July 18 and was awaiting a response.

Buck, who is a chief warrant officer 2 within the Army, is still an active military member, a Fort Stewart spokesman told McClatchy News. He declined to comment on the case amid the Justice Department’s investigation.

Her Army status is an intermediate level rank appointed by the secretary of the Army.

“CW2 Buck chose to dishonor the U.S. Military and defraud the American people she swore to protect and defend,” Special Agent in Charge Cynthia A. Bruce, of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service’s southeast field office, said in a statement.

Buck faces up to five years in federal prison following her guilty plea, the release said.

The ‘prolific fraud scheme’

Between August 2017 and May 2021, Buck is accused of leading unnamed co-conspirators “to engage in multiple schemes to defraud” the U.S. government, court documents state.

After the CARES Act was signed into law in 2020, more than $600 billion in loans was authorized to help qualifying small businesses apply for support through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), prosecutors said.

Buck is accused of directly receiving PPP funds after submitting more than 100 fake applications to the Small Business Administration, according to the news release. Additionally, prosecutors said she would get paid by co-conspirators for submitting fake applications on their behalf.

These loans were submitted for “businesses that she purportedly owned” and she obtained roughly $20,833 for each after lying about their gross income and monthly payroll, according to court documents.

Co-conspirators would pay Buck $500 to $1,000 in cash or via CashApp or Zelle for each fake PPP loan application she submitted for them, prosecutors said.

Meanwhile, federal student loan forgiveness was also targeted in Buck’s alleged fraud scheme, according to the news release.

Buck is accused of writing a number of fake U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs letters in order to swindle more than $1 million in student loans, court documents state.

The falsified VA letters were “used to fraudulently discharge federal loans at the taxpayers’ expense for someone who wasn’t even a veteran,” Special Agent in Charge David Spilker said in a statement.

Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 allows “student loan borrowers with a total and permanent disability” to have certain loans discharged, prosecutors noted.

Buck’s fake letters would falsely claim an applicant was a 100% disabled veteran to accompany fake TPD loan applications submitted to the Education Department, according to court documents.

She is accused of charging $350 to $500 for each TPD loan submitted for others, prosecutors said.

Buck’s sentencing will occur after a pre-sentencing investigation is completed by the U.S. Probation Office, the release said.

In terms of COVID-19 relief fraud, the U.S. Secret Service estimated in late December that nearly $100 billion in COVID-19 relief money had been stolen across the country, a news release said.

Fort Stewart is roughly 240 miles southeast of Atlanta.


© 2022 The Charlotte Observer

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