Joshua Argires received nearly $1 million from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help 51 employees at his “Texas Barbecue” to weather the COVID outbreak.
But according to federal law enforcement, Texas Barbecue had no employees and only a website with nothing for sale. Meanwhile, Argiries allegedly sent the $956,250 he received to an account at the cryptocurrency company Coinbase via a series of five wire transfers.
On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced Argiries has been charged with wire fraud, bank fraud and engaging in unlawful monetary transactions.
The Justice Department did not explain how it detected the fraud but a criminal complaint describes a series of curious circumstances. These include Argiries’ PPP application, which suggested he would pay 51 Texas Barbecue’s employees an average of $90,000 a month.
“Such a high average salary for a barbecue operation raises further suspicion,” the complaint reads.
Meanwhile, the complaint also recounts conversations between Argiries and the Houston credit union that administered the PPP funds. In one conversation, a credit union staffer asked Argiries what he thought of Coinbase—which does not offer payroll services.
“I don’t really manage that aspect of it, but I believe it pays out employees, like, through that,” the complaint alleges.
According to the Justice Department, all of the PPP funds for Texas Barbecue remained in the Coinbase account, where Argiries made several cryptocurrency purchases that made a profit.
In a separate alleged scam, Argiries received $160,657 in PPP funds for a fictitious business called Houston Landscaping. The complaint alleges he withdrew several thousand dollars of these funds at local ATMs.
Argiries has been released on $25,000 bail. A public defender for Argiries did not immediately return a request for comment. The federal government has previously invited anyone who suspects stimulus fraud to report it.
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