Homestead couple sentenced in disaster relief fund case

Yaima, Sergio Perez ordered to pay USDA $800,000 in restitution

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. - A husband and wife were sentenced Wednesday for their connection to a federal disaster relief fund fraud.

Yaima Perez, 28, and her husband Sergio Perez, 49, both of Homestead, pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States, filing false claims, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

In June 2006, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina, Ophelia, Rita and Wilma, the Emergency Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act was enacted. The USDA Commodity Credit Corporation was established to provide up to $95 million in benefits through various programs to producers.

One such program was the 2005 Hurricanes Nursery Program. The Nursery Program was to be administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) within the USDA and was to provide financial assistance to qualifying commercial ornamental nursery and fernery producers who suffered inventory losses and incurred clean-up costs as a result of the above-listed hurricanes. Certain counties in Florida, including Miami-Dade County, participated in the Nursery Program.

According to documents, Yaima Perez was elected to the FSA County Office Committee (COC) in Homestead, and became a part-time federal employee. Her husband Sergio Perez owned a nursery business, Plantas Ornamentales, and both owned and operated Perez Pizza & Bread in Homestead.

In 2007, the Perezes, using the identities of others, filed numerous claims under the Nursery Program falsely claiming that the nurseries purportedly owned by these producers had sustained damage from Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina. The claims were fraudulent and included false certificates of nursery registrations from the Florida Department of Agriculture, direct deposit forms, and powers of attorney.

The USDA paid the false claims, and the payments were deposited into accounts opened by Yaima Perez.

From these accounts, more than $500,000 was wire transferred to a Costa Rican company, Sunshine Bay, which Sergio Perez formed in Costa Rica.

Sergio Perez also admitted that he transferred approximately $700,000 that he received from various farmers who had received benefits from the Nursery Program to Costa Rica to purchase land.

Approximately another $100,000 was transferred between these accounts and also to accounts for Perez Pizza & Bread and Plantas Ornamentales.

Sergio Perez was sentenced to 57 months in prison. Yaima Perez was sentenced to 52 months. Both sentenced are to be followed by three years of supervised release.

Additionally, they were each ordered to pay about $800,000 in restitution to the USDA.

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