Airship mogul pleads guilty to stealing $8 million in pandemic aid – Orlando Sentinel

GAINESVILLE — An international airship mogul in north-central Florida will be sentenced in federal court in January after pleading guilty to defrauding the federal government of nearly $8 million in humanitarian aid meant to help Americans during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to court records.

Executive Patrick P. Walsh, 41, of Williston, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of money laundering at the Gainesville federal courthouse two weeks ago. The judge allowed him to remain free until he was sentenced at the end of January.

Among other expenses, Walsh used some of the money to purchase a two-acre private island in the Gulf of Mexico off Yankeetown, prosecutors said. He also made a down payment on a luxury ski lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and paid off the 78-acre farm where he lives south of Gainesville, court records show.

The Justice Department said it would demand that Walsh turn over all properties he purchased, including the island, known as “Sweetheart Island,” to the U.S. government.

Walsh owns several companies, including AirSign AirShip Group LLC, which he describes as the largest airship company in the world. AirSign bought American Blimp Corp., the nation’s largest maker of airships, in 2017.

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AirSign’s blimps can be seen in the skies of the Super Bowl and the Indianapolis 500, Walsh said.

Despite his plea and court records with his signature spelling fraud, Walsh said in a Tuesday night phone interview that he did not believe he was committing a crime. He said he made risky and aggressive business decisions that he now admits were “dumb.”

He acknowledged that he should have relied on experienced consultants to help him with his loan applications instead of taking what he called “unnecessary risks” with the wrong strategy.

Walsh admitted to defrauding the government of $7.8 million through the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Disaster Loan Program, two federal lending initiatives. They aimed to help business owners continue to pay their employees during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic instead of laying them off.

Prosecutors said Walsh filed bogus loan applications with the Small Business Administration and various banks in 2020 in which he overstated his employee count, average payroll expenses and gross revenue for 20 business entities by duplicating employee information so he could secure larger loans, according to court records.

Parts of his fraudulent loan applications were ultimately easy to detect: Prosecutors said he submitted forged forms that he never actually submitted to the IRS and listed inflated salaries for employees that the State revenue records could not confirm. After learning he was under investigation, Walsh submitted overdue tax forms to the IRS, but the details on them were tampered with, prosecutors said.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication. The journalist can be reached at silas.morgan@ufl.edu. You can donate to support our students here.

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