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NASA Employee Used COVID-19 Funds to Grow Cannabis

The analyst pledged to use the funds "solely as working capital to alleviate economic injury," but he had other plans for the money.

A NASA employee working within the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is facing charges that he fraudulently obtained COVID-19 relief funds and used the money in part to fund an illegal cannabis growing operation.

Armen Hovanesian, a cost-control and budget-planning resource analyst for the JPL, allegedly submitted three loan applications in 2020 for businesses he controlled. Those funds from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program are intended to help small businesses, renters, and homeowners in regions affected by declared disasters, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Hovanesian, who overstated his businesses’ gross revenues and pledged to use the funds “solely as working capital to alleviate economic injury,” had other plans for the money. He instead used the funds, totaling $151,900, to repay a personal real-estate debt and to fund illegal cannabis cultivation.

In California, it’s legal for residents 21 years or older to grow up to six cannabis plants in their homes. But some cities and counties in the state have stricter rules such as permit requirements and outdoor cultivation restrictions.

Hovanesian accepted a single count of wire fraud and is expected in court on August 11th. The U.S. Justice Department said that after he pleads guilty to the charge, he faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

The JPL declined to comment on the allegations but said it will “take the charge of misconduct seriously.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is a federally funded research and development facility in Pasadena, California. The Caltech-based lab focuses on robotic space exploration.

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