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Phoenix woman who spent COVID loans on cars gets 5 years for fraud

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PHOENIX — A Phoenix woman was recently sentenced to 5 years in federal prison for fraudulently obtaining Paycheck Protection Program loans intended to help businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities said.

Celestine Coletta Strong, 46, was charged with filing false application information and using the loans to purchase luxury cars and other items, the U.S. District Attorney’s Office said Wednesday. Arizona in a press release.

In addition to the jail sentence, a judge on Oct. 31 ordered Strong to pay $327,448 in restitution and hand over two cars, a 2016 Mercedes-Benz E400 and a 2018 Dodge Challenger.

She had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Prosecutors say Strong fraudulently received $400,000 in PPP loans, although she tried to get significantly more.

She was accused of using falsified employee information and bank statements to apply for 17 loans totaling more than $3.5 million.

Homeland Security Investigations conducted the investigation. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Inspector General’s Office of Small Business Administration were also involved.

The PPP loan program was part of the CARES Act economic relief package signed by then-President Donald Trump in March 2020, when the COVID pandemic was in its early stages.

In May 2021, the Department of Justice established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force, a partnership with several agencies to combat fraud related to the pandemic.

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