Olivia Ware used the worldwide COVID-19 crisis as a chance to cash in, obtaining more than $323,000 in federal funds meant to help struggling workers feed their families and using it to pay off her mortgage and install a swimming pool.
When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began asking questions two years ago about her Paycheck Protection Program loan, she falsely claimed to be running a major charity out of her Newton County home that employed dozens of people and was working on the front lines of the pandemic, including running a domestic violence shelter and training contact tracers.
On Thursday, Ware was sentenced to two years in federal prison for bank fraud in a scheme that eventually caught the eye of federal investigators after the AJC published a story in September 2020 questioning the legitimacy of her loan.
The probe, conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, included Ware providing federal agents fraudulent W-2 forms that turned out to be not for employees of her charity, but for people who had done personal work at her home, according to federal prosecutors.
She also tried to have the woman who blew the whistle on her locked up in jail during the first winter of COVID, claiming in a November 2020 warrant hearing that the woman who told the AJC that Ware’s charity “didn’t exist” was harassing, threatening and stalking her.
At her sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse in Atlanta, Ware offered an explanation for some of her deceptions. Ware, 63, who ran for mayor of Conyers in 2013 and 2017, said she has been grappling with alcohol abuse and mental health problems for decades, ever since her husband was murdered when she was still a young mother.
“Grief is a very dark place,” Ware told U.S. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross.
Ware’s attorney, Caitlyn Wade, told the judge she feared her client may be experiencing “paranoid delusions,” including unfounded beliefs that FBI informants had been at her home posing as contractors and that the government had been rerouting her phone calls. The attorney asked Judge Ross to delay sentencing for a competency evaluation, but the judge denied her request.
Ware admitted to one count of bank fraud in a negotiated plea in March. Judge Ross also ordered her on Thursday to pay $323,100 in restitution and spend three years under supervised release following her prison term.
In 2020, Congress and the Trump administration established PPP, a nearly $1 trillion forgivable loan program, to prevent small businesses from going under in the economic downturn caused by the COVID pandemic.
The program’s weak safeguards, however, made large sums of money available up front to almost any company that attested they needed it. Hundreds of people have been prosecuted for fraud connected to pandemic bailout loans over the past two years.
According to the charges against Ware, she claimed in her loan application that her nonprofit called Let’s Talk About the Family paid more than $1.5 million to its employees in 2019, and that in 2018 the company had gross receipts of nearly $6 million.
The AJC looked into her purported charity in 2020 as part of an examination of the federal loan program, uncovering little evidence of the programs Ware claimed to offer. A domestic violence shelter that she said housed 12 families turned out to be her home, with two women and four children appearing to live there.
Two women who had once been listed as employees on Let’s Talk About the Family’s website both told the AJC that the operation wasn’t real and that Ware hadn’t paid them for their work. After the story ran, Ware unsuccessfully sought to have one of those women, Alison Greene, arrested in Newton County.
Greene told the AJC on Thursday that Ware’s aggressive tactics compounded the turmoil that she put her through. Greene feared that she could land behind bars for telling the truth, although a Newton County magistrate judge in 2020 denied Ware’s efforts to have her arrested.
Following Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Greene said she doesn’t think two years in prison for Ware is enough.
“I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s never going to be fair, especially to people like me who suffered,” Greene said.
In a court filing, prosecutors described how Ware, still insisting that she hadn’t fudged payroll numbers, gave investigators 49 pages of W-2 forms for tax year 2020. But agents found many were fraudulent, according to the filing.
For example, more than $19,000 in purported wages went to a woman who was actually an employee of company that sold sheds to Ware. Nearly $12,000 went to two brothers who worked for a landscaping company that worked at Ware’s home. More than $5,400 in purported wages went to a company that had installed HVAC equipment for her.
And $500 went to a man who, according to correspondence found in Ware’s Yahoo email account, was “a fraudster who offered to sell Ware counterfeit credit card information, and who performed other fraud-related activities for Ware, such as altering bank checks and paystubs,” the government alleged.
“This is a case that is all about fictions and fabrications,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Trevor Wilmot told the judge Thursday.