Podcast | How pandemic relief became a fraud frenzy in Washington

Emergency actions put money in the hands of struggling small businesses — and opened the door for some scammers. Brandon Block shares his reporting.

The front of a brick building

Squire Center, a four-story red brick building along Occidental Avenue in the shadow of Seattle’s Lumen Field, seen on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. For five years, Joseph Freeman rented a one-room office in this building, until he was evicted for not paying rent in May 2022. Freeman was by then under investigation for $640,000 in PPP loans he received for two existing businesses, Special Delivery LLC and New Jack Trucking LLC. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the relief efforts enacted by the U.S. government to shore up small businesses are still making headlines. But the stories aren’t about recovery; they’re about fraud.

Crosscut investigative reporter Brandon Block recently examined how the crime spree that has hit every corner of America played out in our state, revealing how easy it was for individuals and businesses to scam federal pandemic relief programs out of thousands – or even tens of millions – of dollars.

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Federal prosecutors working on these cases say that the 1,500-plus charges already brought across the country for such crimes are just a drop in the bucket. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Eastern Washington, for instance, has charged 14 people and one business so far with charges including wire fraud, bank fraud and identity theft on counts involving a total of over $20 million.

Pandemic funding did help millions of people and businesses stay afloat in a critical time, but for this episode of Crosscut Reports, host Sara Bernard talks with Block about whether prosecutors will ever get to the bottom of the fraud that came with it.

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