TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department charged 29 people in the Florida Panhandle, including a federal official, after a months-long investigation into “widespread public corruption” over misused federal farm money.
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During a Friday news conference in Panama City, Fla., federal authorities described a scheme that defrauded taxpayers of more than $373,000 intended for drought-stricken farmers.
At the center of the federal investigation is a county-level director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, Duane Edward Crawson, who authorities said masterminded “a broad-based conspiracy to steal government drought assistance funds and hide the actions through identify theft, tax evasion, and other federal crimes with a criminal network of more than two dozen other people.”
“These individuals betrayed their duty as public servants and as citizens in a shallow but breathtakingly bold effort to lie, cheat, and steal from their fellow citizens and our federal government,” said U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe for the Northern District of Florida.
Authorities said Crawson devised a kickback scheme in which he and his co-conspirators submitted fraudulent drought assistance claims.
The results of the investigation, which covered a period between May through December of 2017, was submitted to a federal grand jury, which handed down indictments against Crawson and 28 others.
Among those charged with Crawson were are a former Holmes County Clerk of Court, a former law enforcement officer and the former head of the Holmes County Farm Bureau.
According to the indictment, Crawson submitted fraudulent claims for federal money for livestock or property not owned by his co-conspirators. Once paid for those claims, his co-conspirators then paid Crawson a portion of the money.
The Tallahassee Democrat reported that all 29 defendants appeared Thursday before a U.S. District Court judge in Pensacola. They pleaded “not guilty” and were released pending the start of their trials in January.
The defendants’ trial is scheduled for Jan. 6 at 8 a.m. at the United States Courthouse in Pensacola, Fla.