A Maryland woman pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges related to setting up at least 15 false businesses in six states that received government contracts despite often being registered to people who did not exist.
The businesses subcontracted all the work to other companies, then took the federal dollars without paying the companies doing the work.
Larayne Whitehead, 34, of Clinton, Md., agreed to forfeit $2.4 million in illegal proceeds and a silver Audi.
"The conspirators typically operated under a particular business name for a period of six to 12 months until the business was either disqualified from the FedBid marketplace or was otherwise burdened with lawsuits or liens," the plea bargain said.
"The conspirators initially used their true names and addresses to register their businesses, but later attempted to conceal their true identities by using aliases to register the businesses and by renting commercial mail box store fronts."
The case illustrates how little federal officials know about where goods and services they purchase come from, with one Whitehead firm selling ammunition to the Army, according to government contracting records, thus raising questions about whether bullets of dubious quality wound up in soldiers' hands.
The Department of Homeland Security, with seemingly little investigation of the company's background, gave it a government credit card "to use for payment for goods provided pursuant to a government contract," on which Whitehead racked up $40,000 in charges.
It also highlights the lack of scrutiny of those receiving contracts under set-asides for small businesses and minorities, who simply self-certify, and who the government is pressured to source goods through over established vendors, even for goods like ammunition, which few fly-by-night firms are legitimately equipped to manufacture or supply.
The fake companies included the Encompass Group, which is registered to a ramshackle house in Maryland, touted its status as a black-owned firm and got contracts to do work for everything from teaching English to selling furniture, the Washington Examiner found.
As recently as last November, Sharper Consulting Inc., one of the companies used by Larayne Whitehead under her own name, got government business totalling nearly $145,000 by bidding on contracts for which only woman-owned businesses were eligible.
It got some $210,000 in business set aside for small businesses, and $19,000 in open competition. A phone call to its listed number went to an answering service that forwarded to a cell phone with no answer.
Winning a contract that most companies aren't eligible to bid on, and then having another company do all the work, is a typical minority contracting scheme, though Whitehead's differed in that she never paid the subcontractors.
The schemes are made easier by lax oversight of subcontracting by the government. Though the information is supposed to be submitted, federal databases include subcontracting information for only a small percentage of all contracts.
Companies winning a bid through a set-aside are not supposed to be able to subcontract the work, but with so little information available, federal officials have no way of enforcing it.