Snopes founder co-owned Tacoma company accused of fraud
David Mikkelson, co-founder of fact-checking website Snopes who was found to have plagiarized articles, is a co-owner of a property management company that was recently accused of fraud.
Sunrhys, LLC, a Tacoma-based landlord and property management company, agreed to pay $16,618 to resolve allegations it overcharged a tenant and then fraudulently obtained funds from the federal government through a federal program that provides housing to homeless veterans, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington’s Eastern District.
Prior to Tuesday, Mikkelson and his wife, Elyssa Young, were listed as managers of Sunrhys, LLC. Tacoma-based North x Northwest Law Group was the registered agent.
A spokesperson with the North x Northwest Law Group told The News Tribune on Tuesday the group has had limited interaction with the governors of Sunrhys, was not in a position to provide a statement on Sunrhys’ behalf and recommended contacting the governors, who were responsible for day-to-day operations.
On Tuesday, a change was made to the Washington Secretary of State’s website to make Mikkelson the registered agent of Sunrhys. The entry included a Snopes.com email address.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Mikkelson told The News Tribune the property at the center of the fraud complaint had been primarily managed by Young and that he was not involved in communications with the tenant. He only learned of the case when it went to court, where he agreed to settle. He previously filed to remove Young from management, he said.
Young lives in Walla Walla and was reached by The News Tribune via email Tuesday. She said the tenant was a distant relative who agreed to pay extra for Young to provide internet for his phone, with Young covering the rest of the cost. Young did not answer whether she had committed fraud either intentionally or unintentionally, but said she and Mikkelson are separated.
According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Sunrhys, LLC, was a participant in a joint Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) program that provides rental assistance for veterans experiencing homelessness as well as help finding them housing. Approximately 80,000 formerly homeless veterans were receiving permanent housing through the program at the end of 2020.
Between July 2019 and April 2020, Sunrhys rented a property in Walla Walla to Daniel Avila, an eligible veteran.
“Pursuant to the Housing Assistance Payment Agreement governing Sunrhys’ participation in the program, Sunrhys was expressly prohibited from seeking or collecting additional rent from Mr. Avila in excess of the eligible amount,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “The United States alleged that Sunrhys violated the Agreement and the HUD-VASH program requirements by fraudulently overcharging Mr. Avila for monthly rent between July 2019 and April 2020.”
Avila filed a whistleblower complaint in February 2021, triggering federal investigation under the False Claims Act, which penalizes people and companies that knowingly submitted false claims to the government. The act also allows private citizens who successfully file suits against those who have defrauded the government to receive a portion of the government’s recovery.
In this case, Avila, who was represented by the Northwest Justice Project, received $4,154 of the settlement.
Joseph H. Harrington, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, commended the work of the Veterans Affairs office and Northwest Justice Project in a news release earlier this month.
“No Veteran who has served our country and given everything to protect the safety and comfort of Americans should be himself or herself without the safety and comfort of a home,” Harrington said in a statement on Aug. 4. “The HUD-VASH program provides important benefits to homeless Veterans. This settlement is an example of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington’s commitment to ensuring the integrity of that program.”
Mikkelson was found to have published dozens of articles containing material plagiarized from various news outlets between 2015 and 2019, according to a Buzzfeed investigation published Aug. 13.
According to The New York Times, Mikkelson acknowledged he had engaged in copyright violations and praised the work of Snope journalists.