COVID-19 aid program doled out $7.2M for man’s fake farming firms: report

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The owner of a single-family Ohio home received $7.2 million in federal loans and grants intended for agricultural businesses decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic — but no signs of farming activity can be found at the residence, according to a report.

Zaur Kalantarli, who immigrated to the US from Azerbaijan in 2015, owns the home in Euclid, where 20 companies with names such as Organic Ohio Berries LLC and Garlic Farming LLC were registered, Bloomberg News reported Wednesday.

Nothing is sprouting on the one-eighth-acre plot aside from trees and grass, yet the firms were among dozens that won government approval for loans and grants from the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster program, according to state and federal records.

Kalantarli and his relatives created 72 companies with farming-related names at three addresses in the Cleveland area, but there’s no indication of agricultural activity at any of them or that they were active by the Feb. 1 requirement, Bloomberg reported.

At least some of the loans may need to be repaid, a lawyer for Kalantarli told the outlet this week. Cleveland attorney Edward Le Rue said he notified federal prosecutors of the loans after Kalantarli hired him following an inquiry from Bloomberg News, according to the report.

A Small Business Association spokesperson declined to comment on individual borrowers, but said the agency is committed to “mitigating risks of fraud, waste and abuse” of taxpayers funds.

The questionable loans were uncovered by Bloomberg during a search of companies that received disaster aid despite forming after the eligibility date. Social media postings indicate Kalantarli came to the US from Azerbaijan in 2015 and was later joined by two brothers, according to the report.

After opening a print and sign shop in Los Angeles, he then set his sights on buying and repairing homes in the Cleveland area. Four firms of his linked to the printing and real estate businesses that predated the pandemic then got SBA loans in May and June, although was one later canceled, Bloomberg reported.

One day later, Kalantarli registered the first of 72 agriculture-themed companies, using the address of his Euclid home and two other suburban properties owned by a company under his control.

Visits to the properties this month show that each is a suburban residence with no signs of farming activity, according to the report.

La Rue, who is also representing Kalantarli’s brothers, acknowledged that the men may have misinterpreted rules of the disaster-relief program and may need to return millions.

“I certainly see why you noticed things that did not seem to comport with the SBA guidelines,” La Rue told Bloomberg. “This was done in a slapdash fashion, very quickly, in the mindset of, ‘This is coming to any business owner who wishes it.”

Neither Kalantarli nor his brothers have been contacted police or SBA officials, Bloomberg reported.

“We are looking to move forward to do what we can to ameliorate the situation,” La Rue said.

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