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(Tribune News Service) — A former high-ranking Liberian government official and U.S. military veteran who moved to Georgia and changed her name is accused of filing bogus applications for Paycheck Protection Program loans during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now she’s going to prison.

Hunter VanPelt, 49, of Roswell, Ga., was sentenced to three years and five months in prison in the Northern District of Georgia on Jan. 4 after she pleaded guilty to bank fraud last year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release. VanPelt was also ordered to pay $7 million in restitution and to forfeit an additional $2 million.

Defense attorneys representing VanPelt told McClatchy News in a statement they were “thankful” she received a lesser sentence.

“We are thankful that Judge Cohen recognized Ms. VanPelt’s long history of honorable service in the U.S. military, and other mitigating factors, in granting her a substantial downward departure from the guideline sentence,” they said. “This follows a welcome trend in the criminal courts across the country, in which military service and trauma are increasingly taken into consideration in sentencing.”

Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program as part of a federal aid package to provide businesses with forgivable loans. The money was designed to help small businesses struggling to stay afloat during widespread shutdowns caused by COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, VanPelt decided to use the program as her personal bank,” U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine said in the release. “A significant federal sentence, such as the one she received, hopefully deters others from following the same path.”

According to information filed in court, VanPelt filed applications for PPP loans on behalf of six companies under her control between April and June 2020. The applications falsely stated that VanPelt employed anywhere from 12 to 91 employees and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a month on payroll expenses.

VanPelt sought at least $7.9 million in loans — $6 million of which she actually received, prosecutors said.

When federal investigators began looking into the alleged fraud, the government said, they discovered VanPelt was a former government official in Liberia, a West African country.

She legally changed her name in Georgia from Ellen Corkrum to Hunter VanPelt in July 2016, prosecutors said. But she continues to use her old name. The PPP applications were reportedly filed using both names as well as the name of her son.

VanPelt told The Citizen, Harvard Kennedy School’s student newspaper, in a 2011 interview that she was born in Liberia but is a U.S. citizen. VanPelt — then Corkrum — said she spent “a number of years as a commercial airline jet pilot and as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the United States military” before completing a Master’s in Business Administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later enrolling at Harvard.

She became managing director of the Liberia Airport Authority but was indicted in 2013 on charges she made hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized transfers from the airport’s bank accounts, Front Page Africa reported.

VanPelt reportedly fled to the U.S. and the charges eventually were dropped in 2019, according to the media outlet. But she reportedly maintained ties with Liberia.

Prosecutors said bank statements shed light on where some of the money from VanPelt’s PPP loans went — including $22,146 at Publix, $2,497 at Costco and $4,863 at Sam’s Club.

“Some or all the purchases made by VanPelt at Publix Super Market involved sending money to individuals living in Liberia,” the government said in court documents.

VanPelt also used the money to make a $97,800 payment on an American Express credit card, prosecutors said.

A magistrate judge charged VanPelt by criminal complaint in October 2020, court filings show. She was arrested and released on a $50,000 bond before pleading guilty to the charges in August.

©2022 McClatchy Washington Bureau.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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