A chef and caterer based in Monterey is in hot water with the feds over an alleged $4 million that he bilked from the government during the pandemic, which prosecutors say he used to buy real estate in Belize and fund a new business venture.
Restaurateurs and caterers were certainly among the hardest hit businesspeople when the COVID-19 pandemic first prompted the lockdown orders in March 2020. Many sought relief in the form of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans and other programs meant to keep small businesses afloat. But some tried to take advantage of the chaos and the lack of oversight of the programs, and we're now hearing of another of those cases from a local chef and caterer.
Dory Lindsay Ford, 57, a former executive chef at Big Sur's Ventana Inn and Spa and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was indicted last week on charges of bank fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering among others, related to some alleged COVID-relief fraud from 2020 and 2021.
Ford is alleged to have obtained PPP loans, as well as funds from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL), all totaling $4 million, "by using false and fraudulent, representations, promises, and omissions," and prosecutors accuse him of "concealing material facts."
Ford owns and operates Aqua Terra Culinary, a catering company that won out in a public bidding process in 2017 to get a three-year contract to provide catering services to the Monterey Convention Center. Edible Monterey reported on the deal at the time, and Ford told them that he expected the contract would double his company's revenue — which already included gigs catering the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
In addition, Ford opened a restaurant, Point Pinos Grill, at Pacific Grove Golf Course.
Federal prosecutors say that Ford applied for relief funds for Aqua Terra (and presumably for the restaurant, by extension), but those funds were not used to keep the catering business afloat. Instead, Ford allegedly "purchase[d] real estate properties in the country of Belize, [and] invest[ed] in the stock market," in addition to launching a new company, a mushroom-farming business.
And Ford wasn't secretive about his businesses. He openly told Edible Monterey in early 2022 that he had shut down Aqua Terra and Point Pinos Grill in February 2020, ahead of the statewide lockdowns, because he'd seen a slew of cancellations already and could see the writing on the wall.
"I had a great business and it didn’t exist anymore, which was wrenching," Ford told the magazine. "After 35 years grinding life away at food service, I had nothing."
Ford explained that he slipped into a depression, and he sought out therapy by way of psilocybin (mushrooms), which led him to growing his own mushrooms at home, and this then led to an idea for a new business.
Ford launched the mushroom business MycoSci in 2021, and was apparently already selling non-psilocybin mushroom tinctures through the company by 2022. He told Edible Monterey that the plan was to expand into psilocybin products as state regulations made the legal market for them for feasible.
MycoSci is not mentioned by name in the Department of Justice release about the indictment, that appears to be Ford's only business if you look at his LinkedIn.
The official shutdown of Aqua Terra listed on LinkedIn is October 2022.
Ford now faces a maximum statutory sentence of 30 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1 million for the bank fraud charge alone. If convicted, the other charges could bring 30 more additional years and another half-million dollars in fines. Restitution of the allegedly ill-gotten funds would also likely be part of any sentence.
His next court appearance is on Wednesday, January 31.
The wheels of justice have moved slowly on some of the PPP-loan fraud cases, though it seems like the feds went after the most egregious ones first, and are now getting around to those with lesser dollar amounts.
For instance, one Southern California man, 53-year-old Robert Benlevi of Encino, was indicted in July 2022 for seeking $27 million in fraudulent loans for eight companies that did not exist. He only succeeded in getting $3 million, and he was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Photo via LinkedIn