Ex-Liberian official lied to get $6M in COVID loans, feds say

A former high-ranking Liberian government official who moved to Georgia and changed her name has been accused of submitting fake applications for Paycheck Protection Program loans during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now she is going to prison.

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

Defense attorneys representing VanPelt told McClatchy News in a statement that they were “grateful” that she received a lower sentence.

“We are grateful that Judge Cohen recognized Mrs. Vanbelt’s long history of honorable service in the U.S. Army, and other mitigating factors, in granting her a material deviation from the guiding sentence,” they said. “This follows a welcome trend in criminal courts across the country, where military service and trauma are increasingly taken into account when sentencing.”

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

“Unfortunately, VanPelt has decided to use the software as its personal bank,” US attorney Kurt R Erskine said in the statement. “I hope that an important Federal sentence, like the one she received, will deter others from following the same path.”

According to information filed in court, VanPelt submitted applications for PPP loans on behalf of six companies under its 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 per month on expenses wages.

Prosecutors said VanPelt requested at least $7.9 million in loans — $6 million it has already received.

The government said that when federal investigators began investigating the alleged fraud, they discovered that Van Pelt was a former government official in Liberia, a West African country.

Prosecutors said she legally changed her name in Georgia from Ellen Corkrum to Hunter van Pelt in July 2016. But she continued to use her old name. PPP requests were reportedly made using both names as well as her son’s name.

Vanbelt told The Citizen, a Harvard Kennedy School student newspaper, in a 2011 interview that she was born in Liberia but is a US citizen. VanPelt — then Corkrum — said she spent “a number of years as a commercial jet pilot and Black Hawk helicopter in the United States Army” before completing an MBA degree at MIT and later enrolling at Harvard University.

Front Page Africa reported that she became the managing director of the Liberia Airport Authority, but was indicted in 2013 for allegedly paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized transfers from airport bank accounts.

Vanbelt reportedly fled to the United States and the charges were eventually dropped in 2019, according to media outlets. However, it reportedly maintained relations with Liberia.

Prosecutors said the 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 of the purchases VanPelt made at Publix Super Market involved sending money to individuals living in Liberia,” the government said in court documents.

Prosecutors said VanPelt also used the money to pay off $97,800 on an American Express credit card.

A justice of the peace indicted VanPelt in a criminal complaint in October 2020, court files show. She was arrested and released on $50,000 bail before pleading guilty to the charges in August.

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Hayley Fowler is a reporter for The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news in real time across North and South Carolina. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and previously worked as a legal reporter in New York City before joining the Observer in 2019.


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