A fifth woman has pleaded guilty in an alleged scheme to defraud 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.
Niki Charles, 49, of England, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud. She had been set to go to trial later this month.
Charles admitted that she asked people to falsely claim the USDA had discriminated against their farming operations to obtain funds through two programs: the Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation (BFDL) settlement and the Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers (HWFR) claim program.
Charles said she verified statements from witnesses who submitted affidavits to support the claims, but none of those witnesses actually appeared before her, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas said in a news release.
Charles has agreed to repay $4.5 million obtained through the scheme.
Four other defendants, all of whom are sisters, last month pleaded guilty in the case. Charles' mother 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 to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.
Altogether, the sisters were involved with 192 claims, almost all of which were successful, resulting in a loss of over $11.5 million. The scheme ran from 2008-2017.
Jerry Green, a tax preparer hired by the sisters to falsify tax returns, has also pleaded guilty in the case.
Authorities said another defendant, Everett Martindale, worked as an attorney and acted as the legal representative for most of the claimants that the five women recruited. Martindale is set for trial on Aug. 30.