A Georgia man was charged with fraud after attempting to sell millions of nonexistent respirator masks to the government as it struggles to shore up supplies of vital medical equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, the authorities said.
The man, Christopher Parris, 39, of Atlanta, was arrested on Friday and charged with wire fraud in federal court in Washington, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Mr. Parris was accused of making a series of fraudulent misrepresentations to secure orders that would have totaled more than $750 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs for 125 million face masks and other personal protective equipment.
Mr. Parris promised that he could obtain “millions of genuine 3M masks” from domestic factories “when he knew that fulfilling the orders would not be possible,” the authorities said.
The manufacturer 3M, which is based in Minnesota, produces surgical masks and respirators that have been in high demand since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.
Through a series of misrepresentations, Mr. Parris claimed to act as a supplier who could quickly obtain the scarce personal protective equipment and supplies.
The offer to Veterans Affairs came from a person at a Louisiana-based company that said it sells industrial safety supplies, and identified Mr. Parris and his company, Encore Health Group, as one of its suppliers, according to an affidavit.
When the offer was made in late March, the person said the N95 masks proposed for sale to the department would be made at plants in California and Illinois, however a lawyer for the company said it does not manufacture masks at those sites, according to the affidavit.
Mr. Parris was revealed as the source of the company’s misrepresentations, according to court documents. The authorities did not identify the company or the people working there.
Mr. Parris on April 1 attempted to contact Veterans Affairs, claiming he was referred by the Louisiana-based company and representing Encore Health, according to the affidavit.
He said that Encore Health “has the ability to produce materials in one to two weeks” and that it buys directly from 3M and other suppliers.
A lawyer for 3M said, according to the affidavit, that Encore Health is not one of its partners and that “upon review of 3M’s databases,” 3M does not sell N95 Masks to Mr. Parris or Encore Health.
A representative for 3M could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday night.
Mr. Parris was also accused of making similar false representations to other entities in an effort to sell personal protective equipment to state governments, prosecutors said.
This is not the first time that Mr. Parris has run afoul of the law.
In January, he was charged by federal prosecutors with fraud, conspiracy and related charges in what officials described as a Ponzi scheme that defrauded approximately 1,000 investors of at least $115 million over 10 years ending in 2018.
Prosecutors said the scheme involved Mr. Parris and a partner doing business as Lucian Development, in Rochester, N.Y., offering unsecured promissory notes and preferred stock issued by various entities that they controlled. The case is pending.
Mr. Parris appeared in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in connection with the masks case and was expected to be extradited to Washington. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer.
If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“We will vigorously pursue fraudsters who exploit the Covid-19 pandemic to make money,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in the statement.