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Phoenix woman gets prison time for spending pandemic relief on luxurious car

Celestine Coletta Strong, 46, was recently sentenced to five years in prison after admitting to fraudulently obtaining loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.
Credit: news file

PHOENIX — A Phoenix woman has been sentenced to prison and ordered to pay more than $300,000 in restitution after she was convicted of fraudulently obtaining loans from the government's Paycheck Protection Program. 

Celestine Coletta Strong, 46, was sentenced last week to spend five years in prison after she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office of Arizona. 

Prosecutors say Strong had obtained loans through the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program, which was launched during the pandemic to assist businesses affected by the economic downturn.  

The defendant conspired with others to apply for PPP loans with falsified documents and ended up receiving about $400,000. 

On May 1, 2020, Strong's bank account was overdrawn by about $18, court records show. That same day, over $279,000 in PPP funds were wired into Strong's account.

Within a few days, Strong had withdrawn thousands of dollars from her account to purchase a Mercedes Benz in Gilbert, records show. 

Strong's "methodical" scheme resulted in substantial losses to the taxpayers, prosecutors say. 

"Strong used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle that included the purchase of a luxury vehicle, paying off the balance of her son’s vehicle, among other things," court records state. "She also involved others by filing, in total, 17 false loan applications for others that were ultimately rejected."

U.S. Judge Susan M. Brnovich ordered Strong to pay $327,448 in restitution, as well as surrender her 2016 Mercedes-Benz E400 and 2018 Dodge Challenger. 

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