ST. LOUIS – A St. Louis County woman who pretended to be a landlord to get $267,239 in pandemic-related financial assistance pleaded guilty to a felony charge of wire fraud in United States District Court Monday.
Semaj Portis, 42, admitted in her plea agreement and in court that she took advantage of Emergency Rental Assistance and COVID-19 Emergency Solutions Grants, designed to help both landlords and their financially struggling tenants.
On Jan. 15, 2021, Portis registered a company called Forever Riding with the Missouri Secretary of State. From that date until October 18, 2021, she filed a total of 52 applications for rent assistance to the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which administered the assistance programs. Portis listed herself or Forever Riding as the landlord and submitted fraudulent rental leases, her plea agreement says. Portis was not the landlord for any of the tenants listed in her fraudulent applications. In court Monday, she said she worked as a nurse for 12 years and then as a medical dispatcher.
Portis used the money for vacations, for purchasing real estate and for other personal expenses.
Wire fraud carries a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both. At her sentencing, scheduled for August 26 in front of United States District Judge Audrey G. Fleissig, Portis will also be ordered to repay the money.
United States Attorney Sayler Fleming said, “Financial fraud is particularly egregious when it takes advantage of programs intended to help victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our office and law enforcement have been aggressively investigating and prosecuting these cases.”
The case was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant United States Attorney Derek Wiseman is prosecuting the case.
Anyone with information about rental assistance fraud should contact the FBI at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 589-2500.