No, no, Power Ranger!
The actor who played the original Red Power Ranger in the hit ’90s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” TV series has been accused of participating in a $3.5 million stimulus fraud scheme.
Jason Lawrence Geiger, who starred in the series under the stage name Austin St. John, was one of 18 people arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud as part of a “scheme to defraud lenders and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program,” according to the federal indictment announced in Texas this week.
A message posted to the actor’s Instagram account by his legal team on Friday afternoon said that the actor was “manipulated” and “betrayed” by the other individuals named in the suit.
“It is our understanding that Austin put his faith, reputation, and finances in the hands of third parties whose goals were self-centered and ultimately manipulated and betrayed his trust,” it reads. “We expect Austin’s legal team to successfully defend against these charges and lead to his ultimate exoneration.”
The CARES Act, which provided emergency financial assistance to millions of Americans during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the authorization in March 2020 of up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses through the Payment Protection Program (PPP) for job retention and certain other expenses during shutdowns and other pandemic-related hardships. And in April 2020, Congress authorized another $300 billion in PPP funding.
The defendants in this case — led by Michael “Tank” Hill, 47, of Mineral Wells, Texas — are alleged to have used existing businesses or created businesses to submit applications to obtain this PPP funding. They are accused of misrepresenting material information on these applications, such as lying about the true nature of their businesses, the number of employees and the amount of payroll, according to the indictment.
This misinformation led the SBA and other financial institutions to approve and issue loans to these defendants, and the indictment alleges that they transferred this cash to their personal accounts instead of using it as intended to pay employee salaries, cover fixed debt or utility payments, continue health care benefits for employees, etc. And some defendants reportedly sent the fraudulently-obtained funds to another member of the conspiracy to invest in foreign exchange markets, according to the complaint. The defendants were allegedly approved for at least 16 loans and scored at least $3.5 million in federal funding.
The FBI and the IRS are investigating the case, which will be prosecuted in Texas, and the defendants each face up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted.
Geiger, 47, is best known for originating the role of Jason Lee Scott, aka the Red Power Ranger and leader of the teen superhero team, when “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” premiered in 1993. He left in the second season, but has returned for cameos in various reboots and renditions of the franchise since.
Here is his legal statement in full:
“Austin St. John is a father, husband, role model and friend to many. The indictment detailed today is populated by a multitude of individuals — the majority of which Austin has no knowledge of, and has never met or interacted with. It is our understanding that Austin put his faith, reputation, and finances in the hands of third parties whose goals were self-centered and ultimately manipulated and betrayed his trust. We expect Austin’s legal team to successfully defend against these charges and lead to his ultimate exoneration. We ask that you respect the privacy of Austin’s family in light of this serious situation, and thank you for your support.”
This is just one of many fraud investigations related to the PPP. The Secret Service has reported that nearly $100 billion has been stolen from COVID-19 relief programs set up to help businesses and people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. As of December 2021, there were more than 900 active criminal investigations into pandemic fraud, with cases in every state. And that wasn’t including COVID-19 fraud cases prosecuted by the Justice Department.
There have been other reports of this stimulus funding not always going to the small businesses that it was intended to help. More than 100 public companies received nearly $500 million in PPP funds by April 2020, according to Footnoted, an information service focused on Securities and Exchange Commission filings. A Wall Street Journal report during the same period found that 103 public companies collected more than $380 million in PPP loans.
What’s more, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this past January found that up to three-quarters of the $800 billion in disbursed PPP funds went to business owners in the top quintile of households, rather than workers.