Atlanta attorney found guilty in $7M COVID relief fraud case

Prosecutors said former city police officer and attorney used funds to buy a Rolls-Royce and other lavish expenses

An Atlanta lawyer and business owner previously employed by the city as a police officer and attorney was found guilty Tuesday of defrauding the federal government out of more than $7 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds.

Prosecutors alleged Shelitha Robertson used the funds her businesses received to buy a Rolls-Royce car, a motorcycle, and a 10-carat diamond ring for $148,000, among other things.

Robertson had denied grossly exaggerating the number of people employed by four of her companies in order to obtain millions of dollars in federal aid designed to keep small businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

She blamed her companies’ fraudulent 2020 PPP loan applications on her then-friend and personal attorney, Chandra Norton, who pleaded guilty in a separate prosecution.

A jury of seven men and five women deliberated for about 13 hours over two days before finding Robertson guilty on three counts of wire fraud and single counts of money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Robertson, who has remained on bond since pleading not guilty to the five charges in December 2022, was immediately remanded into custody pending her sentencing, scheduled for April 11.

Federal prosecutor Ariel Glasner said Robertson had threatened to kill Norton upon arrest and separately threatened another person who subsequently filed a police report.

Craig A. Gillen, Robertson’s lead attorney, said her remarks to arresting agents about Norton were made in frustration and did not constitute a legitimate threat. He said Robertson was separately involved in a business dispute with a contractor in Texas, in which no threat was made.

“There’s no history of violence or anger or danger by the defendant to anybody other than the statement she made when she was arrested,” Gillen said.

Robertson occasionally shook her head from side to side after U.S. District Judge Steven D. Grimberg read the verdict but otherwise showed little reaction. Gillen said aspects of the trial, including the presentation of what he described as hearsay evidence, would be raised on appeal.

Prosecutors said Robertson and Norton were best friends and partners in crime who together schemed to get as much money in PPP loans as they could, ultimately receiving almost $8 million.

Robertson transferred $50,000 in PPP funding to her daughter, who has not been charged, withdrew $25,000 of the funds in cash, and gave Norton $400,000, prosecutors said.

Gillen said Robertson was the victim of Norton’s plan to use Robertson’s personal and business information to enrich herself. Norton was “financially desperate,” he said.

Norton is an “evil genius” and a technological whizz adept at falsifying documents, while Robertson is a “boots on the ground” type who “can barely turn a computer on after it goes to sleep,” Gillen told the jury.

“Norton was, and frankly still is, a master of deception,” Gillen said during his closing argument on Monday. “Norton told Ms. Robertson ‘Hey, you can get these PPP loans. I’ll handle it.’”

Both women ran companies awarded multimillion-dollar water and sewer infrastructure contracts across metropolitan Atlanta.

Norton was indicted in August 2020 and pleaded guilty several months later to a single count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She agreed as part of a plea deal to cooperate with the federal government against Robertson, who was indicted in December 2022.

A former contractor for Atlanta and DeKalb County, Norton was disbarred after pleading guilty and is due to be sentenced by Grimberg in January.

Robertson received PPP loans for her companies Atlanta Custom Motors, MO Griggs Contracting, Tritan, and The Renee Group. Only the latter was operational at the time, with 13 employees, case records show.

The loan applications for Robertson’s companies, however, listed a combined 427 employees and $2.8 million in monthly payroll expenses. Prosecutors said The Renee Group’s annual payroll cost $762,674 in 2019 — a fraction of what Robertson claimed.

Robertson signed the Renee Group loan application and admitted that she knew Norton submitted similar applications for Robertson’s three inoperative companies. Robertson said Norton told her the loans were based on Robertson’s net worth.

Gillen said Robertson repaid the PPP funds she received, with interest, “because it was the right thing to do, not because she got caught.”

Prosecutor Bernita Malloy said Robertson, a former public defender, is a conniving fast-talker who participated in the fraud and whose defense “defies logic and is absolutely ludicrous.” Malloy said Norton submitted the false loan applications under the direction of Robertson, who told Norton how much money she wanted.

“There’s no level to which (Robertson) wouldn’t stoop to justify her criminal conduct,” Malloy said in her closing argument on Monday. “She disguised what she did to avoid getting caught. She thought she could wash her hands of it all.”

Some of the largest COVID-19 relief fraud cases in Georgia

Johns Creek resident Darrell Thomas pleaded guilty to orchestrating an $11 million Paycheck Protection Program fraud scheme. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Marietta resident Carl Delano Torjagbo pleaded not guilty to fraudulently obtaining a $9.5 million Paycheck Protection Program loan. His case is pending.

Founding Stonecrest mayor Jason Lary pleaded guilty to pocketing portions of the city’s $6.2 million in funding from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. He was sentenced to almost five years in prison.

Roswell businesswoman Hunter VanPelt pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining more than $6 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans. She was sentenced to more than three years in prison.

Alpharetta resident Lakisha Swope pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining $3.6 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans. She was sentenced to almost four years in prison.

Former Fulton County Sheriff’s Office deputy Katrina Lawson was found guilty of stealing more than $3 million in Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds. She is due to be sentenced in February.

“Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” star Maurice Fayne pleaded guilty to using more than $2 million in Paycheck Protection Program funding to buy luxury jewelry and pay child support, in addition to Ponzi scheme charges. He was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison.

Financial advisor Paul Kwak pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining more than $2 million in Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds. He was sentenced to more than three years in prison.

Source: AJC research