The owner of a St. Joseph solar energy installation company has pleaded guilty to a fraud scheme that totaled nearly $1.4 million in rebates through state and federal programs.
Richard Schonemann, 38, was an owner of US Solar, which sold and installed solar-powered panel systems to businesses and home owners in northwest Missouri.
Between 2011 and 2013, Schonemann and US Solar participated in two solar panel rebate programs, one authorized by the state of Missouri and the second administered by the federal government. As a result of this scheme, US Solar received a total of $1,398,236 in fraudulent rebates.
According to today's plea agreement, US Solar and a co-conspirator were involved in obtaining fraudulent rebates from KCP&L as part of the state rebate program. US Solar overstated the number of solar panels installed on approximately 27 homes or businesses from December 2011 through June 2013. As a result, US Solar was paid $465,360 more in rebates than the company was entitled to receive.
Richard Sharp of St. Joseph was one of those customers. He had 36 solar panels installed on the roof of his home in 2012. He immediately ran into problems with his system, with trees casting shadows over many of the panels during parts of the day.
"They just simply installed it and said, 'If it works, it works.' In this particular case, it didn't," Sharp said.
When representatives from U.S. Solar wouldn't help him out, Sharp got mad.
"I said it to the co-conspirator in this particular thing and Mr. Shoeneman, that they were going to be sorry they did this. I was going to go after them and I wanted to get justice, and I think I did."
In 2013, KQ2 aired a story about Sharp's plight. When he wasn't getting the customer service he felt he deserved, he started doing research and found out many of the numbers didn't add up.
"When I got the contract, I noticed the very first thing was they said they'd put up 72 panels and I said it was not true. Then it just went from there that everything in the contract was a different contract than what I had."
Sharp then turned over all of his research to the FBI.
In uncovering the rebate scheme, federal investigators also discovered a second fraudulent scheme.
Court documents state Schonemann and a co-conspirator obtained fraudulent rebates authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Under the federal program, the government reimbursed 30 percent of the cost of the installation of a solar-powered panel system leased to the property owner. US Solar received federal funds under this program from August 2011 to September 2013, because US Solar certified they installed systems and leased those systems to the property owners. The certification was false because the systems were owned by customers rather than leased. US Solar submitted forged lease contracts in order to receive the federal rebates.
US Solar received 34 payments from the federal government, totaling $932,876. US Solar was not eligible to receive any of the $932,876 paid under the federal program.
(SOT: Sharp) "When you get companies that are more interested in the money than it working properly, that's what happened here. Greed got to them, federal grants and everything else that was given to them."
Additionally, each year after installation, US Solar was required to certify that the installed systems were still running and report the systems' output. Schonemann and a co-conspirator provided updates showing kilowatt usage on each of those properties to the federal government in 2012 and 2013. In some instances, Schonemann simply made up the numbers.
A co-conspirator created false paperwork and computer entries using US Solar customer information. The conspiracy involved the use of false paperwork and computer entries, including lease agreements, certification that US Solar retained ownership of the solar-powered panel systems, detailed cost breakdowns on each system and usage reports. Schonemann and a co-conspirator were involved in preparation of the false usage reports.
One of the fraudulent federal payments related to Schonemann's place of employment, Prolific Technologies, Inc. Fraudulent paperwork was submitted requesting payment for 36 extra panels not installed or leased, resulting in a rebate overpayment of $20,028.
Under the terms of today's plea agreement, Schonemann must forfeit to the government $350,000 that he received from the fraud scheme.
During the course of the conspiracy, Schonemann received payments from US Solar that were described as profit distributions. A significant source for those profit distributions were funds received by US Solar from the federal program. A portion of those funds were used towards the construction of a new house Schonemann built, which is currently listed for sale at an asking price of over $400,000.
Schonemann's residential property is currently named in a civil judicial forfeiture action. Schonemann will be allowed to market this property and, if the property is sold, the first $350,000 in net equity will be used to pay restitution for the federal program fraud. If there is not a signed real estate contract on the property by Oct. 1, 2015, the civil forfeiture action shall proceed and the property will be forfeited to the government to be sold by the U.S. Marshal's Service.
Under the terms of today's plea agreement, the government's sentencing recommendation to the court will not exceed 15 months in federal prison.
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