Broward political consultant Damara Holness will be going to prison for one year and eight months after pleading guilty to stealing $300,000 from a federal program meant to help small businesses struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz gave her a bit of a break on punishment after Holness’ lawyer asked for lenience so she could take care of her toddler daughter. He also ordered her to pay back the money she ripped off from the government relief program. She must surrender to prison authorities in 90 days.
Holness is the 29-year-old daughter of Dale Holness, who narrowly lost the Democratic primary race to fill the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings’ vacant seat.
This summer, Damara Holness was charged with one count of conspiring to commit wire fraud in Fort Lauderdale federal court. As part of her guilty plea to that charge in November, she admitted lying about the financial needs of her Plantation consulting business to qualify for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration as part of Congress’ massive pandemic relief package.
Holness, who has been free on bond since her arrest last August, faced up to 20 years in prison for her fraud conviction. But the federal guidelines for her offense fell between three and four years in light of the amount of money she stole from the SBA program and that she accepted responsibility for her crime.
Holness, represented by defense attorney Sue-Ann Robinson, argued for a lower sentence in court papers, saying that she is a single mother responsible for raising a 15-month-old girl with health issues. Holness’ lawyer argued that her client’s “case presents an exceptional family circumstance where any term of imprisonment would cause irreparable damage to Ms. Holness’s (15 month) old daughter, Amara.”
Holness also said the daughter’s father recently had another child from another relationship, and therefore his ability to take care of Amara while the mother is incarcerated would be limited. “This circumstance has placed Amara’s residential situation in jeopardy and any term of incarceration by Ms. Damara Holness will leave Amara’s care in jeopardy as [the father] will have the added responsibility of Amara full time and a newborn.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Kaplan opposed any type of break from a federal guideline sentencing for Holness, saying such punishment is “reasonable.”
In court papers, Kaplan said: “The defendant has never explained what she did with the money she received.”
He also pointed out that back in March of last year, months before her arrest, the FBI contacted Holness and set up a meeting with her to discuss her PPP loan.
“The defendant failed to show up at the meeting or at a second meeting arranged with the FBI,” Kaplan wrote. “The FBI agents then set out to locate the defendant in order to serve the defendant with a federal grand jury subpoena for the records of Holness Consulting. The agents subsequently served the defendant at a shopping mall as she was getting out of a green Tesla she had been driving.
“After the defendant was approached by the FBI, she then attempted to obstruct the investigation by contacting witnesses.”
After she was arrested in August, Holness’ father distanced himself from his daughter’s troubles with the law, which erupted during his campaign for Congress.
Dale Holness, who served as Broward’s mayor in 2020 and ran against 10 others in the Democratic special primary in November 2021, said in a text message after her arrest that he and his daughter “have been estranged for many years.”
“If she has done wrong, I hope she learns from this and uses it as a lesson as to how to better conduct herself in life,” he wrote at the time.
But in January, ahead of her sentencing Monday, Holness’ father wrote a letter to the judge, asking him to be lenient in punishing his daughter.
“Damara is a loving and caring mother to her 15 month old daughter Amara Julianna,” Dale Holness said in the letter, one of several written to the judge in support of the defendant. “I hope that she will be given every act of leniency possible in her sentencing, so that she may be able to continue to provide the support for her daughter to become a successful and productive citizen.”
Florida public records show Damara Holness ran her political consulting business in the same office as her father’s real estate business, All Broward Realty, at 4325 West Sunrise Boulevard in Plantation. Asked about the same address for both businesses, Dale Holness told the Herald: “She never conducted any business in my office nor did she have keys to my office.”
Damara Holness was among thousands of small business owners in Florida and nationwide who turned to the federal government for a helping hand during the pandemic, but authorities say she cheated the system by lying about her company’s financial profile and payroll.
The COVID-19 relief program, approved by Congress when the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation, was designed to help struggling businesses apply for loans that are guaranteed by the Small Business Administration and ultimately forgiven. Since its inception under the CARES Act, the $650 billion program has been credited with helping small businesses pay employee wages and cover other overhead costs, but it has also generated dozens of cases of fraud in South Florida, one of the hot spots in the country.
In 2020, when Damara Holness was serving as president of the Broward County Democratic Black Caucus, she applied for a $300,000 loan for her company, Holness Consulting Inc., according to a criminal information filed in Fort Lauderdale Federal Court.
To justify her company’s request, Holness claimed in the loan application that her company employed 18 people and spent an average of $120,000 a month on payroll, the information says. In fact, she had zero employees and no payroll expenses. She was accused of using fraudulent payroll tax forms to support her loan request.
A bank in Georgia, which reviewed her company’s application, approved the loan and wired the $300,000 to the political consultant’s account in South Florida.
Once the money hit the bank account in July 2020, Holness spent the next few months creating a paper trail to make it appear as if Holness Consulting had employees and was spending PPP money on legitimate, approved expenses, according to the criminal information.
Holness then issued checks from her company’s bank account made out to other people who agreed to endorse and return them to the political consultant, the information says. She cashed the checks, paid a few hundred dollars to each of the check endorsers and then kept the rest of the cash for herself — about $1,000 per check, FBI agents uncovered during their investigation.
Fraudulent activity became commonplace during the coronavirus pandemic after Congress passed legislation in 2020 allowing small businesses and unemployed workers to apply for financial benefits under the CARES Act.
Most of the COVID-19 relief schemes revolved around the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which was meant to help businesses decimated by shutdowns caused by the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The program allowed for the loans to be forgiven, if borrowers followed criteria laid out by the SBA. Determined to inject money quickly in the faltering economy, the U.S. government waived many traditional requirements that lenders normally check before issuing business loans.
As the nation’s No. 1 fraud capital, South Florida has led the financial crime wave that followed the passage of the CARES Act, according to federal prosecutors.
In South Florida, that’s included a businessman using PPP money to buy a $318,000 Lamborghini, a nurse alleged to have lied about his business to get $474,000 that was used in part to pay a Mercedes-Benz lease and child support, and a North Miami suburban couple that claimed to be farmers to qualify for $1 million in relief benefits.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida has charged more than 60 people in COVID-19 relief fraud cases, mostly involving the PPP program, making it the nation’s leader in such prosecutions. Those fraud schemes have totaled loan requests for more than $80 million. Nationally, one study released last August estimated that up to 15 percent of PPP loans may have been fraudulent.