Four sisters who were accused of taking part in a scheme to defraud the U.S. Department of Agriculture out of more than $11.5 million pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday.
Lynda Charles, 72, of Hot Springs; Rosie Bryant, 74, of Colleyville Texas; Delois Bryant, 75, of North Little Rock; and Brenda Sherpell, 72, of Gainesville, Texas, each agreed to similar plea agreements in court in front of Chief Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. As part of their agreements, the sisters pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.
The charges can mean up to a five-year sentence, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron McCree said he would not ask for a sentence of more than 36 months or three years. A sentencing hearing for the four sisters has yet to be scheduled.
A grand jury originally indicted the four sisters in 2019 for their part in a scheme to submit false claims to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program for Black and Hispanic farmers. Niki Charles, daughter of Lynda Charles, Little Rock attorney Everett Martindale and tax preparer Jerry Green were also named in the original indictment.
Martindale and Niki Charles are scheduled to go to trial in August. In January 2021 Green pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the IRS.
From 2008 to 2017, the four sisters solicited people to file false claims for federal money earmarked for Black and female Hispanic farmers who have been discriminated against.
McCree said the sisters submitted false claims to the Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation and the Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers litigation programs. The sisters also submitted false tax returns to the IRS, McCree said.
The Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation Program began after a class-action lawsuit filed by Black farmers who claimed they had been discriminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when they applied for farm credits. In 2008, as part of the Farm Bill, Congress created a new right of action for others to make claims.
The Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers ligation program began under similar circumstances with a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Successful claims resulted in a $62,500 award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $12,500 which had to be transferred to the IRS. The fraudulent claims made by the sisters were mailed from a post office in Little Rock to a claim administrator in Oregon.
As part of the plea agreement, Charles will have to pay $4.1 million, Sherpell will have to pay $1.7 million, Rosie Bryant will have to pay $4.4 million, and Delois Bryant will have to pay $2.7 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and IRS. The sister also agreed to relinquish a Chevrolet van and Mercedes G550.