A federal appeals court upheld the conviction of an Orlando businessman accused of receiving more than $2 million in federal grant money for a biodiesel facility and fraudulently using it for other purposes.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected arguments by Lee John Maher, who was convicted in 2017 on charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud and receiving, concealing and retaining federal funds. The federal grant money was funneled through a state energy program.
A state grant manager in late 2010 issued a $2.2 million check to Maher’s firm, Clean Fuel LLC, for what was believed to be a generator for the facility, the ruling said. Maher submitted a fraudulent progress report to the state Office of Energy in January 2012 and asked for an extension of the project in March 2012, but the grant agreement was terminated in July 2012.
The appeals court said Maher and an employee, Larry Kenneth Long, continued to fake compliance with the agreement but that Maher had spent at least part of the grant money on personal expenses.
“On December 10, 2010, Clean Fuel negotiated the check and Maher transferred the grant funds to several bank accounts,” said Wednesday’s ruling, written by Judge William Pryor and joined by Judges Elizabeth Branch and Robert Luck. “Maher used the funds to pay credit card bills, legal fees, some debts of Clean Fuel, and rent for his penthouse in Manhattan and to purchase box seats for professional football games.”
In the appeal, Maher, now 61, argued that the conviction should be tossed out because a five-year statute of limitations had expired before he was indicted in May 2016 by a federal grand jury. The appeals court, however, rejected the arguments, in part saying that Maher’s retention of some of the money in 2011 amounted to a “continuing offense.”
“Maher does not dispute that more than $6,000 of the grant money remained in his bank account on May 31, 2011,” the ruling said. “When the grand jury returned its indictment on May 17, 2016, fourteen days remained in the limitations period to prosecute Maher for receiving, concealing, and retaining property of the government. The grand jury timely indicted Maher.”
The ruling does not provide extensive details about the project that was supposed to receive the funds. But a 2018 news release from the U.S. Department of Justice said Maher and Long were officers of Clean Fuel Lakeland, which operated a biodiesel facility in Lakeland in 2009 and 2010. They sought the grant for a generator for the facility.
Maher was sentenced to 30 months in prison, while Long, who pleaded guilty to mail-fraud conspiracy, was sentenced to 12 months, the news release said.
Jim Saunders reports for the News Service of Florida.