Eight people arrested after investigation that began in November 2020
As a result of a Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office investigation into allegedly fraudulent Sarasota County CARES Act applications, detectives estimate they were able to stop the release of about $4.15 million in federal funds that were allocated to the county last year for emergency assistance, Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman reported this week.
During an April 19 press conference, Hoffman credited not only his staff, but also the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller, Sarasota County Government staff, the U.S. Secret Service and the State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Judicial District.
“Detectives launched their investigation in November 2020 after being contacted by Sarasota County Government employees about suspected fraud,” a Sheriff’s Office news release explained. “Through a partnership between the county’s Office of Financial Management and the Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller,” the release added, “employees flagged several CARES Act applications that seemed suspicious. As detectives began looking at individual applications, they identified 200 fraudulent applications, 114 of which were submitted by SRQ Financial Solutions LLC,” a business located at 4034 N. Washington Blvd. in Sarasota, the release noted.
The company did end up collecting more than $319,000 from the CARES Act program, Hoffman said.
Last year, the county received about $75.7 million from the U.S. Department of the Treasury through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The County Commission agreed to divvy up the money among various types of applicants. For example, Hoffman explained during the press conference at the Sheriff’s Office headquarters, households were eligible to receive up to $10,000 each, while a business could apply for up to $49,999. Each had to demonstrate negative financial consequences as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.
Hoffman characterized the SRQ Financial case as a matter of “double fraud on the taxpayers.” He pointed out, “There are going to be folks … hurt in this community” because they did not get any of the funds.
The commissioners made it clear from the outset of the county’s launch of its CARES Act program that they wanted to prevent any efforts “to defraud the public,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis noted during the press conference. “It’s about protecting the community and public trust.”
County government leaders “set up an entire team to handle the CARES Act program to ensure the appropriate distribution of funds,” Hoffman said.
Clerk of Court Karen Rushing explained that her office was “the last stop” before payments were made.
SRQ Financial Solutions LLC “is marketed as a tax preparation business with several employees who identify themselves as certified tax professionals,” the Sheriff’s Office news release noted. Based on a review of the 114 applications that the business submitted to the county, the release added, detectives “identified several suspicious profit and loss statements and fictitious bank statements.”
On Feb. 24, the press release said, detectives executed a search warrant at SRQ Financial, where they seized more than 1,500 files, including small business loan applications and allegedly fictitious tax documents.
Detectives still are poring over those files, Hoffman pointed out during the press conference, referencing computers and boxes at the front of the room.
More details of the investigation
Through interviews with more than two-dozen clients who sought services through SRQ Financial, the sheriff continued, detectives learned that the business collected a $150 application fee to submit a CARES Act application on behalf of a client, and then SRQ Financial would take 20% of any funds the county released to the client.
Most of those interviewed “stated they learned through either social media or word of mouth that SRQ Financial was assisting with Business Assistance [CARES Act] applications,” the news release noted.
Several clients told detectives they never were asked for financial information about their businesses until after their applications were turned in to the county, Hoffman pointed out.
When presented copies of 2019 profit and loss statements that SRQ Financial filed on their behalf, “Several clients admitted the numbers were false,” Hoffman said, and others acknowledged that their businesses were not even operational in 2019.
“The fabrication of the financial statements was done entirely by SRQ Financial Solutions employees,” the news release pointed out.
On April 18, warrants were issued for eight people involved in the alleged SRQ Financial Solutions scheme, the news release added. Peria Rhodes of Sarasota is considered “the ringleader of the operation,” Hoffman reported during the press conference. “In total, more than $319,000 was released because of her applications,” he said. “A few appear to be legitimate; the majority … are fraudulent.”
The Probable Cause Affidavit for Peria Rhodes noted that after detectives began reviewing documents in the case, it appeared that SRQ Financial itself obtained $49,999 from the county. The profit and loss statement the business submitted to reflect the period of March 1 2020 through July 31, 2020 “inflated numbers such as wages ($135,000), rent ($25,000), advertising ($3,500), and overall expenses ($182,219). SRQ Financials 2020 tax documents list a Profit and Loss statement showing wages ($116,001), rent ($20,111), advertising ($2,315), and overall expenses ($178,275),” the affidavit added.
The affidavit also explained that the Sheriff’s Office identified the allegedly fraudulent applications because they all came from the same internet provider address, and they had “common language, and photos of documents with the same background.”
“[Rhodes] was supported by Raelyn Tillman of Port Charlotte, who is a notary and helped manipulate financial statements,” the news release added. Maria Bradley and Demetrius “Nikki” Sheppard, who also are employed by the business, “helped submit the fraudulent applications,” the release said. “Shaquaya Cooper, Shaneice Rhodes, William Rhodes, and Eddie Yarn are all identified as accomplices who helped the operation,” the release pointed out.
Cooper was the last one arrested, Hoffman announced during the press conference. She was “apprehended about an hour ago, hiding under a bed in Manatee County,” he added.
All eight who allegedly participated in the fraud were in custody, Hoffman said.
After praising the Sheriff’s Office personnel involved in the investigation, Hoffman noted that the two lead detectives had been devoting almost all of their time to the case since it began.
“The Secret Service is proud to partner with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office,” added Rick Dean, assistant to the Special Agent in Charge for the Tampa Field Office of the Secret Service, during the press conference. “The hard work and determination of the investigators, in this case, is the reason we stand here today. The results of this investigation are a testament to our belief that building strong, trusted partnerships across the law enforcement community is a proven model for success,” Dean said.
Any person or business that has dealt with SRQ Financial Solutions is “strongly encouraged” to contact the Criminal Investigations Section at 941-861-4900, the release pointed out.
To learn more about the Sarasota County CARES Act process, visit http://www.scgov.net/government/health-and-human-services/covid-19-coronavirus/sarasota-county-cares-5898. Sarasota County has allocated all of its $75.7 million and is no longer taking applications, the release noted.
The formal charges and arrest histories
The charges in the case are as follows, the press release said:
- Peria Rhodes, 33, of 1090 Cocoanut Ave., No. 5, in Sarasota, is charged with a single count of Scheme to Defraud More than $50,000. She has prior arrests for fraud, Sale of Cocaine, and Possession of a Controlled Substance.
- Raelyn Tillman, 27, of 13498 Mary Jo Ave. in Port Charlotte is charged with a single count of Scheme to Defraud More than $50,000. She has no prior local arrests.
- Maria Bradley, 40, of 2746 Church Ave. in Sarasota is charged with a single count of Scheme to Defraud More than $50,000. She has prior arrests for fraud, theft, and violation of probation.
- Demetris “Nikki” Sheppard, 38, of 2120 Ernie Shank Court in Sarasota is charged with a single count of Scheme to Defraud More than $50,000. She has no prior local arrests.
- William Rhodes, 57, of 2760 21st St. in Sarasota, is charged with Theft and Perjury. He has several prior arrests on charges including Burglary with Battery, Possession of Cocaine, Resisting with Violence, Fleeing to Elude and Aggravated Stalking.
- Shaneice Rhodes, 32, of 1090 Cocoanut Ave in Sarasota is charged with Theft and Perjury. She has one local prior arrest for fraud.
- Shaquaya Cooper, 25, of 3402 20th St. W. in Bradenton is charged with Theft and Perjury. She has no prior local arrests.
- Eddie Yarn, 38, of 1009 20th St. E. in Bradenton is charged with Theft and Perjury. He has several prior arrests on charges including Trafficking in Stolen Property, Burglary, Resisting with Violence, Indecent Exposure, Battery on a Law Enforcement Officer, Fleeing to Elude and Fraud.