Former Wyoming Catholic College CFO charged in massive fraud

Wyoming Catholic College, located in downtown Lander fired Paul McCown, its chief financial officer, after he was accused of defrauding an investment firm out of $15 million. (Matthew Copeland / WyoFile)

By Rone Tempest, WyoFile

Federal prosecutors have charged the former chief financial officer for the Lander-based Wyoming Catholic College with defrauding a government COVID-19 business relief program, the Wyoming Business Council and a New York investment firm out of millions of dollars by falsely claiming that he had amassed a fortune in a booming gin distillery and hand sanitizer business.

According to court documents filed this week, Paul D. McCown, 35, waived indictment and agreed to plead guilty to some or all of the seven counts of criminal wire fraud. Each count has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

A plea hearing has been set for March 29 in Casper before U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl.

Since it first surfaced as part of a $15-million civil lawsuit against McCown by the New York financial firm Ria R Squared, the McCown case has rocked the Lander business community and embarrassed the tiny Catholic college that once prided itself in not accepting federal or state government funds.

Most of the $14.7 million he received in a loan from Ria R Squared has been seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hours after McCown received the Ria R Squared money he redistributed the bulk of it as an anonymous $10 million donation to the WCC and gave $375,000 each to his friend, WCC vice president Jonathan Tonkowich and to a brother, Phillip McCown, according to court filings.

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In December, Ria R Squared also sued Wyoming Catholic College, Tonkowich and Philip McCown to recover money it claims was not collected by the FBI. Ria R Squared claims that WCC still holds $239,154; Tonkowich, $73,870 and Phillip McCown $23,699, in fraudulently obtained funds.

Prosecutors say the criminal fraud began in June 2020, when McCown began applying for a series of loans and grants from the Wyoming Business Council, the state agency charged with distributing the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds to affected state businesses. Between June 2020 and November 2020, he received $841,863 from the Wyoming Business Council.

In September 2020, McCown, who had begun falsely telling people that he was getting fabulously rich by selling hand sanitizers to airports and NFL stadiums, paid $700,000 to purchase the large Lander country home of WCC board chairman David Kellogg and his wife Carol Kellogg.

The COVID scheme began to unravel in February 2021 when a Wyoming Business Council audit determined that McCown had failed to provide proof of the revenue he claimed, or the number of employees he listed for his company, McCown Industries. The business council demanded that he pay back all $841,863 he had received.

According to federal investigators, this demand caused McCown, whose storefront business never had more than a handful of part-time employees at most, to apply for more federal money through the Paycheck Protection Program and to concoct an elaborate fraud to raise money from Ria R Squared. Posing as an extremely wealthy entrepreneur, McCown fabricated bank statements and posed as a banker to show that he had $750 million in his account at the tiny Wyoming Community Bank in Lander.

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Prosecutors said he then used this false identity and faked account to obtain a short-term $15 million loan from Ria R Squared in exchange for promising to eventually transfer the money to the New York company to manage.

The federal charges against McCown filed on March 10 deal only with the Wyoming Business Council grants and the Ria R Squared Loan.

Not included in the charges is a $1.1 million federal loan he obtained under the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program, nor the $1.29 million in two PPP loans he secured for Wyoming Catholic College as its chief financial officer.

For the $1.1 million business loan, he claimed McCown Enterprises had 81 employees averaging $65,185 in salary. For the WCC loan, he claimed the college had 187 employees while the school itself has only 200 students. Interviewed subsequently, WCC administrators placed that actual employee count at 60 full-time and 5 part-time.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.