San Diego restaurateurs accused of COVID-aid fraud

Several San Diego restaurant owners have been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering for allegedly falsifying applications for pandemic relief funds. Leronce Suel, 46, and RaVae Smith, 45, the partners behind Rockstar Dough LLC and Chicken Feed LLC, which operate several restaurants across San Diego, including Streetcar Merchants Of Fried Chicken in North Park, Suckerfree Southern Plates & Bar in the Gaslamp, and ShotCaller Street Soul Food in Lincoln Park, have been indicted by a federal grand jury in San Diego for their alleged involvement.

The indictment alleged that between March 2020 and June 2022, Suel and Smith conspired to underreport more than $1.7 million in gross receipts on Rockstar Dough LLC’s 2020 corporate tax return filed with the IRS to be eligible for the COVID-related Paycheck Protection Program and Restaurant Revitalization Funding loans. Furthermore, the partners were accused of making materially false certifications on loan applications regarding the use of the funds. The indictment states that Suel and Smith made significant cash withdrawals from their business bank accounts to launder the fraudulently obtained funds, while also concealing over $2.4 million in cash at their residence.

“This office will investigate and prosecute those who exploited the global pandemic to unjustly enrich themselves. We encourage anyone with information regarding individuals who have engaged in COVID-relief fraud to come forward,” stated U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California. Suel and Smith made their initial court appearance this week before U.S. Magistrate Judge William V. Gallo of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California and could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud while a 10-year sentence awaits them for money laundering.

“The CARES act was passed to aid those in need and provide much-needed relief during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Special Agent in Charge Tyler Hatcher of the Los Angeles Field Office. Hatcher further added that “there are individuals and organizations who took advantage and targeted these programs to steal funds. Submitting false returns in support of a fraudulent loan application is a crime. IRS-CI is committed to aggressively investigating these crimes and bringing those to justice who stole funds and targeted relief programs during the pandemic.” The IRS-Criminal Investigation department is currently investigating the case, while Trial Attorney Julia Rugg of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Beeler of the Southern District of California are prosecuting the case.

Despite the charges, Suel and Smith currently own and operate ShotCaller Street Soul Food in Lincoln Park and StreetCar Merchants Chicken Bar in North Park. However, it has been revealed that Streetcar will eventually become a new bar & restaurant concept called Happy Medium. It remains to be seen what kind of impact these allegations may have on their businesses and reputation moving forward.

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