Damara Holness – a political consultant and former president of the Broward County Democratic Black Caucus – was ordered to report to federal prison by noon on April 25 to serve a 20-month sentence for lying on an application to the Paycheck Protection Program and fraudulently obtaining hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to help small businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
She is the daughter of former Broward County Mayor Dale Holness. Damara Holness pleaded guilty in November, a day after a Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat that her father lost by five votes.
U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz on Monday also sentenced the 29-year-old Holness to five years of supervised release and to pay $300,000 in restitution, the Miami Herald reported.
"The defendant saw this as an opportunity to unjustly enrich herself by defrauding the program designed to help those struggling businesses," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Kaplan wrote in court records.
Damara Holness’ lawyer, Sue-Ann Robinson, said it "was more an act of desperation than greed." She said some of the money went toward "housing arrangements" and taxes.
Holness apologized to the community, the government and to her family, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported. She noted that she's affected her father's career. Dale Holness said his daughter has "accepted responsibility for her mistake. We’re all human. She’s acknowledged it."
According to court records, Damara Holness applied for the loan for her company, Holness Consulting. The application claimed that the company had an average monthly payroll of $120,000 in 2019 for its 18 employees. The business was incorporated in November 2018 before becoming inactive.
"The defendant reinstated the business on June 22, 2020, in order to obtain the PPP loan. The business had no employees and virtually no income," the prosecutor wrote in court documents.
Prosecutors said Damara Holness spent months creating a paper trail after receiving the money. Court documents showed she paid 22 people, including a school bus driver and a security guard, about $1,300 every two weeks. Once they cashed the checks, the "employees" kept $300 and returned the rest to her.
Defense attorneys urged the judge to give her a lenient sentence because she cooperated with investigators and she has a young child.
Prosecutors asked for a sentence between 33 and 41 months "to promote respect for the law." They also noted that Damara Holness committed the crimes while pregnant and was "well aware that she was giving birth and that if she was caught that she could go to jail."
On May 17, 2021, the attorney general established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.