Four sisters, all in their 70s, have pleaded guilty to cheating the U.S. Department of Agriculture out of more than $11.5 million intended for minority farmers who had suffered discrimination in the agency’s programs.
Lynda Charles, 72, of Hot Springs; Rosie Bryant, 74, of Colleyville, Texas; Delois Bryant, 75, of North Little Rock; and Brenda Sherpell, 72, of Gainesville, Texas, each pleaded guilty on Wednesday to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.
Arkansas Business covered the case in 2020, when the women were indicted by a federal grand jury and originally pleaded not guilty to the charges.
That indictment stated that each of the women, who were raised near Humnoke in Lonoke County and ran a business in North Little Rock called Jovi Women & Hispanic Litigation, received $2.2 million from their nearly decade-long scheme. Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall will sentence the sisters at a later date.
Charles, Rosie Bryant and Delois Bryant bought homes and other properties, a Chevrolet van and a Mercedes G550 with their ill-gotten gains, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Wednesday. Under their new plea agreements, they are required to relinquish any claim to the vehicles immediately and repay, by time of sentencing, the money they used to buy the properties.
The scheme, which ran from 2008-17, involved the sisters soliciting people to file false claims asserting they were discriminated against when they tried to get assistance from USDA for their farming operations.
The 192 claims, almost all of which were successful, were filed through programs established following the settlement of several, separate lawsuits brought by Black, Hispanic and women farmers.
But the claimants the sisters recruited had not suffered discrimination and, in most cases, had not even attempted to farm.
The scheme also allegedly involved two other defendants who are set to go to trial on Aug. 30: Niki Charles, the daughter of Lynda Charles, and Everett Martindale, who worked as an attorney and acted as the legal representative for most of the claimants.
Martindale allegedly deposited claim checks into his law firm trust account, issued a check from that trust account to the claimant, and withheld his attorney fee. The sisters split the attorney fee with him and received additional money from the claimants.
The sisters also admitted to hiring a tax preparer to falsify tax returns for claimants, resulting in failure to report more than $4.6 million to the IRS. That tax preparer, Jerry Green, pleaded guilty in January 2021. He admitted then to preparing at least 82 false tax returns.