(The Center Square) – A mayor in Georgia pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal theft and fraud charges pertaining to COVID-19 relief money.
Authorities said Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary, who has led the city in DeKalb County since 2013, pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from Stonecrest’s share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.
Lary stepped down as mayor Tuesday.
“Every executive has to make a decision on how far he can take an organization, and I’ve given all I can give,” Lary said. “I ask that you all measure me by the whole story. I did the best that I could do with what we had in place.”
The federal government awarded DeKalb County $125 million in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. DeKalb disbursed $6.2 million to Stonecrest in July 2020. Federal authorities said Lary created a scheme to route some of the funding to businesses under his name and others connected to him. He used more than $100,000 to pay off the mortgage on his lake house and thousands of dollars more for personal liabilities, authorities said.
Under Lary’s direction, the city allocated $1 million to the Stonecrest Cares Program for mask distribution, COVID-19 education and testing, among other things. The money was then supposed to be dispersed to Stonecrest churches and nonprofits. Another $5 million was allocated to the city’s COVID-19 CARES Act Small Business Program to provide support for small businesses. The city contracted Municipal Resource Partners Corporation, a company with ties to Lary, to disburse the funds. Authorities said Lary handpicked its CEO and bookkeeper and opened its bank accounts.
Stonecrest’s application on its website for the business grant required applicants to use 25% of the award for marketing. Authorities also said he told churches they must direct a portion of the money for purposes he chose.
Authorities said the bookkeeper, Lania Boone, signed dozens of checks on behalf of Municipal Resource Partners Corporation, directing millions of dollars of relief funds to individuals, businesses, churches and nonprofit organizations of Lary’s choice.
In one instance, Lary told a church to direct $50,000 out of its $150,000 federal award for home repairs for people who could not afford them because of COVID-19. Lary allegedly used some of that money to pay off his outstanding federal, state and local tax liabilities. Authorities said Lary also used $4,500 he collected from another church to cover property expenses and Georgia Campaign Finance Committee dues.
Lary also is said to have wired $108,000 from Municipal Resource Partners Corporation’s bank account to pay off the mortgage at his lakefront property and used some of the aid to pay for an associate’s political advertisements and his son’s college tuition and rent.
Lary admitted to the court Wednesday to stealing about $650,000 in federal aid. His sentencing hearing is set for May 2. Boone was arraigned on a federal charge of conspiracy to commit federal program theft but is still awaiting a hearing.
“It is very troubling when an elected official, someone sworn to protect the community they serve, violates that oath by stealing relief funds intended to aid their community during a global pandemic,” said Chris Hacker, special agent in charge of FBI Atlanta. “The allegations against Lary and Boone indicate an abuse of a position of trust and blatant disrespect for the law, which will not be tolerated by the FBI.”