NYC restaurateur gets nearly 5 years in prison for PPP fraud

Multiconcept operator Besim Kukaj used his $1.5 million loan to buy luxury items, feds say.
Kukaj sought aid for restaurants that no longer existed. / Photo: Shutterstock

A New York City restaurateur has been sentenced to 57 months in prison for bilking the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) out of $1.5 million and threatening a landlord who had demanded overdue rent.

Besim Kukaj had been accused of masterminding a complex scheme to qualify for $6.1 million in forgivable loans to his multiconcept operation, Bkuk Group. The company’s restaurants include Intermezzo, Limon Jungle and Cara Mia. All of the establishments are located in Manhattan.

According to federal authorities, Kukaj sought aid for restaurants that had closed before the pandemic. He also fudged revenue and employment figures to qualify for more emergency funding, the officials said.

Kukaj fraudulently pursued pandemic aid for his holdings even after he had been arrested and released on bail for the federal charges, according to Damian Williams, U.S. attorney general for the Southern District of New York.

“He did this out of pure greed, sending some of this money to a Florida real estate developer and using it to buy luxury items from Cartier and Hugo Boss,” Williams said in a statement. “And he didn’t stop there.  He directed his co-conspirator to physically threaten a victim to whom he owed money.  For his brazen crimes, Kukaj will serve meaningful time in prison.”

Kukaj’s co-defendant, Abduraman “Diamond” Iseni, had already been found guilty of defrauding the PPP.  According to the court proceedings, Kukaj had encouraged Iseni to threaten at least one landlord who was seeking overdue payments for Bkuk properties.

The PPP was launched during the early weeks of the pandemic as a source of aid for companies that lost all or most of their revenues because they had to shut down for public health reasons. Up to $10 million per business was available in the form of a loan to cover payroll and other expenses. If the funds were spent in accordance with the rules set by the federal government, the borrower was excused from having to repay the loan.

The COVID-19 Fraud Investigation Unit was set up in May 2021 by Attorney General Merrick Garland to pursue businesses and individuals who attempted to cheat the federal government out of all forms of pandemic aid, including grants from the PPP.

Its investigations are ongoing.

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