Aaron Fernandes was in jail on drug charges when he hatched a plan —over a recorded phone line — to collect COVID relief payments he wasn’t entitled to, prosecutors say.
Fernandes, 42, of Plymouth, is accused of plotting with two women to pocket nearly $100,000 in relief payments meant for people struggling to survive financially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ferris Brooks, also of Plymouth, collected more than $400,000 in benefits, applying for benefits in his own name and the names of three others — including two homeless people and a person who had been living in Dubai for more than a decade, prosecutors charge. The three were victims and not charged.
The four were arrested in separate cases as part of widespread state and federal efforts to crack down on pandemic-related fraud and recover billions of tax dollars that were doled out with few safeguards.
Brooks was charged with theft of government benefits by the US Attorney’s office last month. Fernandes, Katherine Quigley and Rebecca Holmes, were indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury in late September. At the time, Fernandes and Quigley were in jail on unrelated charges, records show.
“The COVID fraud cases really stand out because the defendants – the people who stole the money – were taking advantage of a sincere effort to protect workers and the U.S. economy,” said former US Attorney for Massachusetts, Nathaniel Mendell, now a lawyer in private practice. “And in many of the cases they used the money to buy massive homes and Italian sports cars. There isn’t a lot of moral ambiguity in a case like that,” he said.
A September US Government Accountability report estimated that between $100 billion and $135 billion in fraudulent unemployment payments were made during the pandemic. Court documents detail how Brooks applied for an array of government benefits he wasn’t eligible to receive. He was mostly successful, prosecutors said, until he got caught. Only the US Small Business Administration turned him down when he applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan in the name of Ferris Brooks Consulting — a business that didn’t exist, prosecutors allege. But he was able to collect more than $400,000 in two types of unemployment benefits, as well as $15,000 in economic impact payments provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) signed into law on March 27, 2020, according to the federal criminal complaint.
The law allowed adults to collect up to $1,200 apiece. Brooks collected benefits on behalf of three people he claimed worked for him in Plymouth — including two he carelessly reported as having identical jobs — “full time housekeeper” and “child care provider.”
One of them had been living in Dubai since 2011 and told investigators he did not apply for benefits. The second “full time housekeeper” was homeless and not working at the time. The third person supposedly lived in Dorchester and was working as a full-time “groundskeeper” and auto detailer for Brooks in Plymouth. He was homeless and unemployed, prosecutors allege.
He also filed tax returns for 10 other people — collecting approximately $15,000 in economic impact payments in their Names, the complaint alleges. Under the CARES Act, adults were eligible to receive payments of up to $1200 apiece. In the state case, Fernandes, Quigley and Holmes are accused of stealing or conspiring to steal nearly $100,000 in pandemic unemployment funds.
They were all on the phone call in December 2020 when they plotted to steal government funds, prosecutors said. Fernandes and Quigley are accused of pocketing $97,000. Holmes is charged with conspiracy only. She was on the call, prosecutors said, but ended up receiving nothing. Brooks couldn’t be reached for comment. His lawyer, federal public defender Julie-Ann Olson, declined comment. Lawyers for Fernandes, Quigley and Holmes also declined comment.
Investigators from Massachusetts’ Inspector General Jeff Shapiro’s office, acting on a tip, first uncovered the alleged scheme involving Fernandes and the two women. “The vast amount of pandemic relief funds coupled with the necessity to swiftly disperse them, created opportunities for fraud,” said Shapiro. “In addition to our team of investigators, we have a dedicated Pandemic Funding Oversight Unit who are and will continue to monitor these funds and follow up on any allegations of fraud. “We encourage anyone who suspects that pandemic funds have been obtained fraudulently or otherwise misused to please contact our hotline at 1800-322-1323 or send us an email at IGO-FightFraud@mass.gov,” he said. “The OIG is committed to aggressively pursuing these cases,” he added.
Attorney General Andrea Campbell, whose office is prosecuting the case, said in a statement: “We will continue to take seriously and investigate any and all allegations regarding the exploitation of these critical public funds.” Fernandes and Quigley face multiple counts of unemployment fraud, identity fraud, and larceny over $1,200. Fernandes’s lawyer, Daniel Fitzgerald, said he was just assigned the case and didn’t have enough information to comment. Quigley is charged with 12 counts.
She and Fernandes face up to five years in state prison and fines of up to $25,000. Holmes, who is charged with one conspiracy count, faces up to 2-1/2 years in a house of correction and a $2,000 fine. Brooks faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.
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