Former attorney who stole from clients now pleads guilty to COVID-19 fraud
(The Center Square) – A former attorney in Washington state who was sentenced last year for stealing from a deceased client’s estate and scamming a personal friend pled guilty on Friday to a separate illegal scheme in seeking federal COVID-19 relief benefits.
Darlene Piper Baker, 58, of Port Orchard, is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 1 in U.S. District Court. She pled guilty to wire fraud and making false statements regarding her income in an unlawful attempt to obtain $265,000 in federal monies during the pandemic, said Tessa M. Gorman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.
Authorities alleged Baker applied for funding through the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans program between March 2020 and August 2021, falsely claiming she would use monies to meet payroll expenses for her business which had been shut down during the pandemic.
“In fact, Baker had no employees and she used $80,000 in PPP funds for her personal expenses,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release Friday. The U.S. Small Business Administration did not pay any funds to Baker based on her application for an economic disaster loan, it was noted.
During the period that Baker claimed her business was closed, she was actually working as a bookkeeper for an investment firm in Gig Harbor and earning $145,000, prosecutors said.
Wire fraud in connection with a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Making a false statement is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Friday’s plea is the latest episode in her criminal history.
In March 2022, Baker – then known as Piper – was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing a deceased client’s $500,000 bequest to St. Jude’s Children's Hospital, then covering up that theft by scamming another $500,000 from a friend, said prosecutors. She was released from federal custody on March 16 of this year.
In her latest plea agreement, prosecutors said Baker admitted she lied in court financial disclosure statements on her prior criminal case about the income she received as a bookkeeper. Authorities were tipped off by a member of the public following publicity over her 2022 fraud sentence.
Despite earning income, she made no attempt to repay the victim in the wire fraud case and claimed to have no resources to pay court-imposed restitution, authorities said. Baker also previously failed to disclose that she owned property in Mexico which could have been sold to pay her victims. And authorities said the Washington State Bar Association was poised to sanction Baker for stealing $42,000 from two other clients before she opted to surrender her law license.
Baker’s case was investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Dion.
Since May 2021, the Department of Justice has operated a COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force in partnership with other government agencies to investigate and prosecute criminal involvement, both domestic and international.
Suspected fraud activity can be reported here.