By Jody Godoy
(Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors have brought what is believed to be the first case against bank employees who allegedly exploited multi-billion dollar programs aimed at helping small businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a case unsealed in Brooklyn federal court on Friday, prosecutors say Anuli Okeke, a former branch manager at Popular Bank in New York, conspired with other bank employees and tax preparers to apply fraudulently for more than $3 million in pandemic relief loans overseen by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Alex Moncion, a spokesperson for Popular Bank, which was not named in the complaint, said on Monday that the bank had alerted law enforcement and bank regulators to the conduct and terminated the employees involved.
"This behavior is contrary to our commitment to integrity and to our values and business practices, which are guided by the highest ethical principles," said Moncion.
The loan programs, which provided forgivable and low-interest loans to small businesses, were part of Congress' multi-trillion dollar response to the pandemic.
The relief effort has been plagued by "unprecedented levels of fraud," the U.S. Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery said in June.
More than 500 individuals have been charged with pandemic-related fraud, but the case appears to be the first involving an alleged scheme within a bank.
While prosecutors have scrutinized lenders for potential misconduct, no financial institutions have been accused of wrongdoing.
According to prosecutors, Okeke worked with others to recruit applicants for loans from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program and create false documents. At least two other individuals have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme.
An attorney who represents Okeke declined to comment on the charge on Monday.
Officials said on Friday that they will continue to investigate and prosecute pandemic-related fraud.
(Reporting by Jody Godoy; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Dan Grebler)