Federal prosecutors have charged a Nigerian man, Chidozie Collins Obasi, who reportedly managed to defraud New York out of more than $30 million during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic by selling them ventilators — then never delivering.
Chidozie was indicted last year, but prosecutors in Pennsylvania only unsealed the indictment on Thursday and announced the case Friday.
The scam is one of the largest coronavirus fraud cases prosecutors have revealed.
Authorities say New York paid Mr. Obasi $30.7 million for ventilators that were never delivered.
And his sights were set even higher. The 62-page indictment says he made ventilator sale offers worth nearly $287 million in March and April of 2020, when much of the country was squabbling over access to the machines, which were believed to be the key to keeping battered COVID patients alive.
“At no time did defendant Chidozie Collins Obasi or any other co-conspirator ever provide any actual ventilators after deceiving a customer into paying for Draeger ventilators in advance,” the indictment says.
Mr. Obasi and co-conspirators also managed to get the Small Business Administration to approve more than $450,000 in bogus pandemic loans, the indictment says.
Authorities say the scammers had money sent to overseas bank accounts and once sent, they quickly cleared the money from those accounts.
The government is seeking to recapture more than $30 million from Mr. Obasi, but the fact that the money is overseas made that a tall order.
Mr. Obasi himself is still at large, prosecutors said.
Pandemic fraud may have been the most lucrative scam, but authorities say he was defrauding Americans well before the pandemic with fake work-from-home schemes, which were really ways to get people to give up access to money in their bank accounts.
Prosecutors say he faces up to 621 years in prison on multiple mail and wire fraud charges.
New York was particularly hard-hit early in the pandemic and was desperate for ventilators.
Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and then-President Trump repeatedly sparred over access to the machines, with the state saying the feds weren’t delivering enough supply to handle the crushing load of patients.
New York and other states were leaping at offers of ventilators and other supplies, such as personal protective equipment and sanitizer, often without being certain of who the suppliers were.
The New York’s Department of Health, which the indictment says was the chief purchasing authority for the ventilators, declined to answer questions about how it got bilked, citing court cases.
“The New York State Department of Health does not comment on pending litigation,” said spokesperson Jeffrey W. Hammond.
The department didn’t say what pending litigation it was referring to, though New York Attorney General has sued several parties claiming they promised ventilators that were never delivered.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Obasi’s alleged activities are covered by one of those lawsuits.