Plea bargain spares Wenham man from prison time in $1.2 million COVID fraud

·3 min read

Jul. 1—WENHAM — A Wenham man charged last year with fraudulently obtaining $1.2 million in coronavirus pandemic relief funds has reached a plea bargain with federal prosecutors that will spare him from any prison time.

James Joseph Cohen, 59, allegedly used the personal information of two people, including a man from Swampscott and a 95-year-old from Dedham who had invested in two companies he had set up, to apply for Economic Injury Disaster loans from the Small Business Administration and for Payroll Protection Program loans from two local banks. The two investors were listed as employees of the companies.

The SBA and the two banks, North Shore Bank in Peabody and The Newburyport Bank, provided Cohen with nearly $1.2 million in funds, after being provided with fraudulent financial and payroll information, according to court papers.

Instead of using the funds to keep people employed and keep the businesses running, prosecutors say he used the funds to pay the mortgage on his Wenham home, for car payments, school tuition, and to pay off a $123,000 American Express bill.

Cohen has a prior history of bank fraud; in 2005, when his name was Jamie Edelkind, he was sentenced to federal prison in a bank fraud scheme. He legally changed his name after his prison term. Court papers say he hadn't completed payment of $3.2 million in restitution still owed in that case.

U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins announced in a press release on Thursday that Cohen was charged and agreed to plead guilty to one count of bank fraud, and noted that the offense carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

However, under the terms of a plea agreement signed on Wednesday by Cohen and the U.S. Attorney's office, Cohen agreed to waive being indicted and the two sides will jointly recommend a sentence of 12 months of probation, restitution of the $1.197 million Cohen obtained, and a $100 special assessment. A hearing where he will enter a guilty plea is set for July 28.

If a judge decides not to go along with the agreement, Cohen will be allowed to withdraw his plea in the case under the terms of the deal.

Cohen was represented by a federal public defender in the case.

The offenses took place in 2020 and 2021, as many small businesses competed for pools of money made available to help them stay afloat during COVID lockdowns. Many smaller businesses were unable to obtain assistance when the programs ran out of money.

The Attorney General has established a task force to investigate CARES Act fraud across the country.

The Rollins announcement included a request for anyone with information about fraudulent pandemic relief applications to report it by calling the U.S Department of Justice's National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or submit information on its website at justice.gov.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis