Phoenix Woman Sentenced to Prison for Paycheck Protection Loan Fraud

Celestine Coletta Strong, 46, of Phoenix, Arizona, was sentenced October 31, 2022, by United States District Court Judge Susan M. Brnovich to five years in prison. The court also ordered Strong to pay $327,448 in restitution and surrender her 2016 Mercedes-Benz E400 and 2018 Dodge Challenger. Strong previously pleaded guilty to one count of Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud.

Strong fraudulently obtained loans from the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program, a program designed to help small businesses meet their payroll obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Strong conspired to submit loan applications with falsified employee and wage information, fake bank statements, and other false information in an attempt to obtain 17 different loans totaling more than $3.5 million in loan proceeds. She fraudulently obtained approximately $400,000 and used the proceeds to purchase, among other items, luxury cars.

On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts.

Homeland Security Investigations conducted the investigation in this case, with assistance from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Small Business Administration Office of the Inspector General. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin M. Rapp, District of Arizona, Phoenix, handled the prosecution.