LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — The owner of a Louisiana livestock business has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $76,000 from a federal aid program to help compensate farmers and ranchers for losses from the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. authorities said Wednesday.
Burnell Gabriel Zachary, 37, pleaded guilty to one count of theft from the U.S. government on Tuesday and agreed to repay $76,274 as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in Lafayette, court documents show.
Zachary, a resident of Arnaudville in south-central Louisiana, falsely claimed the pandemic caused significant losses for his livestock business, Zachary’s Ranch, LLC, and consequently received three payments in July and August 2020, according to the documents.
At sentencing, Zachary faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing date has not been set.
The money Zachary received came from a $16 billion federal program to help farmers and ranchers who lost money because of COVID-19 or the supply chain disruptions it caused.
“COVID-19 fraud is one of the top priorities of this office” because it takes money from people who really need it, Acting U.S. Attorney Alexander C. Van Hook said in a news release.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “COVID-19 food assistance programs were meant to keep food on tables during this unprecedented time,” said Dax Roberson, special agent in charge of USDA’s inspector general’s office, which investigated the case.
“This prosecution should send a strong zero-tolerance message to those opportunistic fraudsters who would take advantage of a national emergency to enrich themselves,” Roberson added.