Having escaped prosecution for theft in Liberia, now booked for fraud in the U.S., facing 30 years jail time
A former fugitive of the Liberian government has admitted to stealing nearly US$8 million fraudulently in the US.
The fugitive, Ellen Corkrum, 49, according to the US Justice Department pleaded guilty today in the Northern District of Georgia for perpetrating a scheme to fraudulently obtain more than US$7.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Ms. Corkrum, who was once a former Managing Director of the Liberia Airport Authority, is expected to be sentenced on January 4, 2021, and could spend up to 30 years in prison.
According to US court documents, Corkrum, by the name Hunter VanPelt, submitted six fraudulent PPP loan applications to four different lenders on behalf of entities she owned or controlled, namely: Georgia Nephrology Physician Associated, United Healthcare Group & Co., Nephrology Network Group LLC, First Corporate International, Corkrum Consolidated Inc., and Kiwi International Inc.
Through the six PPP loan applications, she fraudulently sought more than $7.9 million in PPP loan funds, of which more than $6 million was disbursed to accounts controlled by VanPelt.
“VanPelt (Corkrum) brazenly exploited this devastating national emergency for personal gain, and she is now being held accountable for her fraudulent conduct,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “PPP funds should be reserved for legitimate businesses and their hard-working employees who have suffered economically as a result of the pandemic. The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that anyone who takes advantage of COVID-19 relief programs will be brought to justice.”
Ellen Corkrum in Liberia
Corkrum, a former U.S. military Black Hawk assault helicopter pilot, fled Liberia in 2013 after she was accused of corruption while serving as Managing Director of the Liberia Airport Authority. However, she escaped before her indictment by the Grand Jury of Montserrado County was released. She was indicted on charges of economic sabotage, criminal facilitation, conspiracy to defraud the government, and making unauthorized transfers of funds from government accounts.
Corkrum was indicted along with the First International Bank which was accused of conspiring with her then-lover, Melvin Johnson, to make an unauthorized transfer of funds for US$56,750 from the account of the Liberia Airport Authority. She was also accused of transferring US$269,000 to a fictitious company, Diaspora Consulting, LLC, and its CEO, Momar Dieng, with whom she reportedly attended the Kennedy Business School, Harvard University.
But in a twist of fortune, the administration of President George Weah in December 2019 filed a motion for Nolle Prosequoi at Criminal Court ‘C’ at the Temple of Justice, requesting that all charges against Cockrum be dropped. On December 9, the government’s request was granted the same day by Judge Nancy Sammy of Criminal Court ‘C’.
According to the government, they decided to file such a motion because the case has been pending before the court since 2013 without having the opportunity to serve defendant Corkrum with the Indictment or the Writ of Arrest to bring her under the jurisdiction of the court.
In 2015, some efforts were made to secure Corkrum’s extradition to Liberia. The Solicitor General at the time, Cllr. Betty L. Blamo, traveled to the United States to meet U.S. authorities, an effort that did not materialize, making it impossible for Corkrum to be served her indictment or extradition to take effect. These constraints, the CDC-led government noted, led to its decision to finally drop charges against Corkrum.
However, as Liberians say, “ninety-nine days for rogue, one day for master.”
The US Prosecution
In Court, the US Department of Justice argued that VanPelt (Corkrum) falsely represented the number of employees and payroll expenses in each of the six PPP loan applications. To support the fraudulent PPP loan applications, VanPelt submitted fraudulent tax records, bank statements, and payroll reports. VanPelt, who legally changed her name from Ellen Corkrum to Hunter VanPelt in July 2016, submitted three of the PPP loan applications using the VanPelt name and three additional PPP loan applications using the Corkrum name.
The Department of Justice working with law enforcement partners seized and recovered approximately $2.1 million of the disbursed PPP funds in this matter. An additional $1.6 million of the disbursed PPP funds were seized by a bank and returned to the lender.
“The Paycheck Protection Program helps businesses keep their workforces employed during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine for the Northern District of Georgia. “When these funds are diverted by fraud, such as in this case, workers and the businesses that employ them unfortunately suffer.”
“The Paycheck Protection Program is key to survival for many small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Special Agent in Charge Chris Hacker of FBI Atlanta. “It is particularly disturbing that anyone would try to capitalize off a federal program at those businesses’ expense. The FBI will persist in its efforts to stop such fraud.”