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East Tennesseans charged with Paycheck Protection loan fraud


A Chattanooga man who was federally convicted as a drug trafficker 20 years ago is now charged in US District Court with submitting false forms to the Small Business Administration to dupe the federal government on nearly 12 $000 in Paycheck Protection Program loan funds.

Antonio Dewayne Menifee, a convicted Chattanooga drug dealer, is accused of submitting false forms to the agency in April 2021 to secure a loan for a non-existent construction business as part of a COVID-19 relief plan of $800 billion authorized by Congress to help small business owners continue to pay their employees during the pandemic.

Menifee is charged with wire fraud in connection with the badly obtained loan, as well as new federal drug charges associated with a search, according to court records.

When officers in September 2021 sought to search Menifee’s home as part of an investigation into the $11,485 loan he had received, they discovered cocaine, a stolen gun, ammunition, plastic bags used to package drugs, digital scales used to weigh drugs and $15,000 in drug money, FBI Agent Coley Vincent Warner wrote in a criminal complaint.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga business owners got a lifeline with pandemic aid, but remain cautious)

Menifee was convicted in 2002 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga for conspiracy to sell cocaine and firearms. He served about a decade behind bars before being released, but then repeatedly violated the terms of his probation by using drugs, lying to authorities and threatening violence against his wife, records show.

Menifee was returned to prison in 2017 following these violations and served an additional 27 months. It’s unclear from the court record whether he was still on federal probation when he applied for and was granted a Paycheck Protection Program loan in 2021.

His attorney, assistant federal defender Myrlene R. Marsa, was in court Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

(READ MORE: Fintech Paycheck Protection Program loans pose higher risk of fraud, study finds)

Menifee wasn’t the only East Tennessean trying to cash in on the pandemic.

A Surgionsville, Tennessee woman who was already on probation in a federal fraud case is also accused of getting a Paycheck Protection Program loan for a bogus business and using the money to get plastic surgery in Florida and spend a week recuperating at the Trump International Beach Resort, according to court records.

Leslie Danielle Bethea, 40, of Surgionsville, Tennessee, was charged in United States District Court with wire fraud and money laundering in connection with a loan she obtained under the plan to COVID-19 relief.

According to the indictment, Bethea filed false tax documents with the Small Business Administration in March 2021 to obtain a $20,805 loan.

(READ MORE: The price of a pandemic: Scenic City businesses grapple with demand to cancel stimulus loans, suing for more help)

“On the e-application…Leslie Bethea fraudulently stated that she was the sole proprietor of a marketing consulting services business which made $99,865 a year when in truth and in fact, as she well knew, Leslie Bethea had no company that reported that amount,” US Secret Service Senior Special Agent Thomas Whitehead wrote in a criminal complaint.

“Leslie Bethea has fraudulently stated that in the past five years she has not been convicted, pleaded guilty or started any form of parole or probation for fraud,” Whitehead wrote. “In fact, Leslie Bethea pleaded guilty and was found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud on September 26, 2019 … (and) was actively serving a supervised release sentence for this conviction at the time of the information electronic. application.”

Bethea was on federal probation for identity theft and creating fake credit cards when she tricked the US Small Business Administration into giving her a Paycheck Protection Program loan for a bogus business.

Whitehead said in the complaint that Bethea obtained the loan with no questions asked and deposited the loan proceeds into its bank account in Knoxville. She then used that money to travel to Aventura, Florida in April 2021.

While at Aventura, Bethea “received elective cosmetic surgery services totaling $5,500” from Dolls Plastic Surgery over a three-day period, Whitehead’s complaint said. The agent did not disclose details of this operation in the complaint.

Bethea spent five days at Trump International Beach Resort, a luxury hotel in Sunny Isles, Florida, while recovering from surgery, using the disaster plan loan to pay the $2,834 bill, wrote the agent.

The agent wrote that Bethea lied to the US probation office during the same period, claiming that “her only monthly cash inflow for April 2021 was $200 from her ex-husband… (and) has said “none” when asked to identify any expenses in April 2021 that exceeded $500.”

“Bethea said she did not travel outside the (East Tennessee) district without permission in April 2021, even though she traveled to Florida for elective plastic surgery and stayed in a luxury hotel in Florida for five days using the proceeds of the fraudulent fraud obtained a PPP loan,” Whitehead wrote.

Bethea was on federal probation after serving a two-year prison sentence for her role in a 2018 fraud scheme in which she and “unindicted co-conspirators” stole the identities of dozens of people, used “machines to emboss plastic cards” to create credit cards using these stolen identities and have used these credit cards to pay for over 100 flights across the United States, hotel bills, restaurant trips and shopping sprees, according to court records.

Bethea’s court-appointed attorney, Douglas L. Payne of Greeneville, Tennessee, did not return a phone message seeking comment on the case.

Bethea and Menifee are now behind bars awaiting further legal action in their respective cases.

Their cases are part of what the Justice Department has called an “epic scam” of COVID-19 relief funding that has taken place since Congress began authorizing funds to help businesses and citizens affected by the pandemic. 2020 pandemic.

An NBC News investigation reported last year showed that up to $80 billion of the $800 billion authorized under the Paycheck Protection Program was distributed to fraudsters in the United States and abroad and used to pay for expensive cars, mansions and vacations.

Learn more at TennesseeLookout.com.

Staff writer Ben Benton contributed to this story.