Court Digest

Man accused of using relief funds on Lamborghini gets prison

HOUSTON (AP) — A Houston man has been sentenced to more than nine years in prison after he was accused of using federal COVID-19 relief funding on a Lamborghini, a Rolex watch and trips to strip clubs, federal prosecutors said.

Lee Price III, 30, was sentenced Monday to 110 months in prison. Price pleaded guilty in September to wire fraud and money laundering.

“Mr. Price hopes that others will learn from his reckoning that there is no easy money,” Price’s lawyer Tom Berg said in an email to news outlets. “He has the balance of the 110-month sentence to reflect, repent and rebuild his misspent life.”

Prosecutors accused Price of fraudulently using more than $1.6 million in funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, which gave low-interest loans to small businesses struggling during the pandemic.

According to prosecutors, Price also used the money to buy an $85,000 pickup truck and to pay off a loan on a residential property.

South Dakota
2016 Pine Ridge reservation slaying draws 15-year sentence

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — One of three men accused in a fatal shooting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2016 has been sentenced in federal court after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors.

Estevan Baquera, 28, was given 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to accessory to first-degree murder in the death of Vinny Brewer outside of the Boys and Girls Club in Pine Ridge.

Prosecutors said Baquera traveled to Pine Ridge with Adan Corona and Francisco Villanueva to collect a drug debt from Brewer.

Baquera said making that trip was “the worst decision of his life,” but he claimed he didn’t know of the plan to kill Brewer, KOTA-TV reported.

Judge Jeffrey Viken referred to the slaying as “brutal” as it happened in front of families and children on a Sunday afternoon outside of the Boys and Girls Club as basketball games were being played.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Collins said part of the reason Baquera was offered the plea deal was the government’s concern over not being able to convict him of the felony first-degree murder charge because he wasn’t the one to pull the trigger.

Corona and Villanueva were found guilty of first-degree murder, felony murder and conspiracy to commit assault following a trial in September. They will be sentenced in February.

Contractor to pay $637K for deficient work on bridges

LYNDON, Vt. (AP) — General contractor J.A. McDonald, Inc. has agreed to pay $637,500 to settle allegations of deficient work on federally funded bridge projects in southern Vermont that caused the state to unwittingly present false claims for payment to the federal government, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

The company, headquartered in Lyndon Center, has agreed to make the payment to the federal government and state of Vermont to resolve allegations that it violated the federal False Claims Act and the Vermont False Claims Act, the U.S. attorney’s office said Monday.

“Public infrastructure projects in the United States must be constructed with care and diligence,” said Jonathan Ophardt, acting U.S. Attorney for Vermont said in a written statement. “When contractors recklessly disregard public safety and squander tax dollars, the United States Attorney’s Office will aggressively investigate and hold them accountable.”

The bridges were on Route 279 in Bennington and Interstate 91 in Guilford. The settlement resolve allegations that between about 2008 and 2010, JAM employees cut or burned multiple sections of reinforcing steel out of the concrete substructures that support the bridges and took steps to conceal the alterations from the Vermont Agency of Transportation, federal prosecutors said.

An email was sent to JAM’s attorneys seeking comment.

The federal government and state said that the Vermont Agency of Transportation unwittingly paid JAM for deficient bridge work and presented false claims to the Federal Highway Administration for reimbursement, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

JAM also has agreed to adopt a comprehensive ethics and compliance code and a quality assurance/quality control program and to train employees on both. It also has agreed to appoint a corporate compliance officer to ensure that the company complies with the code and program and retain an independent monitor who will do on-site, unannounced inspections on the contractor’s work on federal-funded projects and report the inspections to the Federal Highway Administration for three years, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Woman’s early release in deadly school bus crash denied

ROCHESTER, Ind. (AP) — A judge on Monday blocked the early prison release of a woman convicted in a 2018 crash that killed three siblings who were crossing a rural northern Indiana highway to board a school bus.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Greg Heller denied Alyssa Shepherd’s placement into a community transition program as early as next month after prosecutors and members of the victims’ families opposed the transition.

Shepherd was sentenced to four years in prison in 2019 after being convicted on three counts of reckless homicide in connection to the crash that killed 9-year-old Alivia Stahl and the girl’s 6-year-old twin half brothers, Xzavier and Mason Ingle.

In October, Fulton County Prosecutor Michael Marrs filed a motion opposing Shepherd’s release into the community transition program, saying he and the victims’ families felt an early release was inconsistent with Shepherd’s actions.

Brittany Ingle, the mother of the children who died in the crash, wrote a letter to the court saying Shepherd should stay behind bars for as long as possible.

Heller’s ruling also comes after newly revealed public records show the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation paid nearly $3.5 million to the families of the victims in settlement payments.

Court to hear NASCAR challenge of tax on broadcasts

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments in a case involving the state’s attempt to tax NASCAR for broadcasting its races in Ohio.

At issue before the court is whether the state tax commissioner properly subjected those broadcasts to Ohio’s commercial activities tax during an audit from 2005 to 2010. The tax requires payments on a company’s annual sales. Oral arguments have been set for Jan. 25.

The state argues its imposing of the tax is based on NASCAR’s commercial activity, meaning the organization’s sale of Ohio broadcast rights.

NASCAR could avoid the issue by excluding Ohio from its licensing contracts, the state said in a September court filing. “But as long as Ohio is included in its licensing agreements, Ohio is relevant to NASCAR’s receipts,” the Ohio Attorney General’s office said.

The Tax Commissioner determined NASCAR owed Ohio $549,520, according to court records.

Daytona Beach, Florida-based NASCAR maintains that its commercial activities in Ohio such as broadcasting races and selling merchandise are done by other companies—Fox Broadcasting Co., for example—which are taxed accordingly.

Applying the tax to NASCAR broadcasts in Ohio is “an unconstitutional expansion of tax liability for out-of-state content providers,” NASCAR argued in an August filing.

Man charged in rape on train held for trial

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A man accused of raping a woman on a commuter train outside Philadelphia while other passengers were present was ordered held for trial by a magistrate judge Monday.

Fiston Ngoy, 35, is charged with rape and related offenses. The Oct. 13 attack on a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority train drew international attention. Police and other authorities initially said bystanders on the train should have intervened, but later said  many of those passengers likely did not understand or realize a rape was happening on the train.

An off-duty SEPTA employee called police after realizing “something wasn’t right.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Ngoy’s attorney argued during Monday’s hearing that prosecutors had not offered evidence that his version of events — that it was a consensual sexual encounter — was not correct. But a prosecutor likened the alleged attack to a scenario seen at colleges where a passed out person is taken advantage of.

The woman, whose name was withheld, testified in court Monday saying she had drank a few beers before boarding the train. She said Ngoy kept pushing himself on her and she had tried to push him away before she blacked out.

Investigators said surveillance video showed the woman try to push Ngoy away several times over the course of a 40-minute train ride before the attack. Police say Ngoy ripped the woman’s pants off about six minutes before the train stopped at the 69th Street terminal in Upper Darby and police arrested him on the train car.

Ngoy was being held on 10% of $180,000 bail and is scheduled to be arraigned in county court in January.

The court appearance came the same day as two Philadelphia City Council committees held a joint hearing on safety concerns aboard SEPTA vehicles.

The hearing was prompted by a series of high-profile altercations including an attempted sexual assault at the 69th Street Terminal later in October and a filmed attack on Asian American students that led to assault and ethnic intimidation charges against four juveniles.

At the hearing, SEPTA officials said the police department has more than 40 open officer positions, leaving about 213 active officers.

But representatives from the officer’s union said many officers call out some days, leaving the department even more short-staffed. Union representatives balked at SEPTA plans to hire contractors and private security officers to work at stations and fill the gap.

“You would be better off taking that money outside and setting it on fire,” said Omari Bervine, president of the local Fraternal Order of Transit Police lodge, who urged the transportation authority to invest in the police department.
SEPTA officials also touted programs that pair nursing students, social workers and other service providers with transit workers or transit police to intervene in situations with homeless individuals, people who may need addiction services and people who may need mental health interventions. Officials also said they were looking at a program that would put graduate students who are studying child psychology on trains during school dismissal times.

A handful of council members asked for a larger uniformed police presence, and argued both the private security officers and the intervention workers would not be able to intervene in violent altercations.