West Side restaurateur who tried to scam $6.1M in COVID loans gets 4+ years in prison instead

Besim Kukaj, whose corporate web site still says he runs ten restaurants in the Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village neighborhoods--which all appear to have been shut down-- was convicted of a massive bank fraud scheme involving COVID relief funds. Last week, he was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison.

| 17 Apr 2023 | 11:42

A businessman who at one time ran up to ten restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and Greenwich Village has been sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison for orchestrating what federal presucutors called a “sprawling loan fraud.”

Prosecutors said Besim Kukaj sought to bilk the government out of over $6.1 million in loans which were designed for relief to small businesses during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead of using the money to aid his businesses, the feds said he diverted the money to a Florida real estate developer and bought luxury items from Cartier and Hugo Boss. He and a co-defendant Abduraman “Diamond” Iseni, who had already been sentenced, also faced the additional charge of trying to intimidate a creditor that they owed money to.

Kukaj was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison. “Manhattan restaurateur Besim Kukaj took advantage of the hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal government efforts to help those in need by lining his own pockets with seven figures of illegally obtained funds,” said Judge Damian Williams of the US Southern District in Manhattan. “He did this out of pure greed, sending some of this money to a Florida real estate developer and using it to buy luxury items from Cartier and Hugo Boss.”

Prosecutors said Kukaj and his co-defendant tried to scam $6.14 million in loans under the federal programs designed for COVID-19 relief and and actually managed to receive $1.5 million in government guaranteed loans during the pandemic. His company, BKUK Group web site was still up and said the company operates ten restaurants although only six were still listed on the web site and all the phones for those six establishments were disconnected. When a reporter visited several of the locations listed, other restaurants not associated with the scammer had already taken over his abandoned restaurants. None of the people in the existing establishments had any idea who Besim Kukaj was.

But the FBI who arrested him in October 2020 and charged him with bank fraud and conspiracy certainly did.

His once sprawling empire is now only a memory and been replaced by other establishment at many of the venues.

At 402 W. 44th St. where his Gallo Nero was once based there is now a Japanese restaurant called Ari Sushi, Inc. A worker in the new restaurant said his establishment had been there three years. Next door to the defunct Gallo Nero is the thriving Moma Mia’s, a popular neighborhood staple for decades. A worker at Moma Mia’s said Gallo Nero had moved across the street but only briefly before that too folded.

“They knocked everything down about three years ago and moved across the street, but they were only there about six months,” said the worker.

Across the street is a one-year-old restaurant called La Pulperia, which describes itself as serving “rustic Italian cuisine.” But workers there said they had no knowledge or connection to Kukaj.

Further downtown, Intermezzo at 202 Eighth Ave. has been replaced by El Coco, a Mexican restaurant. A worker there said the place has been there about a year but had no knowledge of the old establishment other than to say, “There was an Italian restaurant here before,” he said.

Other apparently defunct restaurants run by Kukaj included Maria Pia, at 319 W. 51st St.; Cara Mia, 693 Ninth Ave; Taqueria Maz-A, 95 7th Ave. South.; and Limon Jungle at 197 Seventh Ave.

Prosecutors said that from April 2020 until at least July, 2020, Kukaj, working with others submitted applications for loans under the PPP (paycheck protection program) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL) to multiple banks on behalf of various restaurants Kukaj or a relative owned. Prosecutors said he did so on behalf of restaurants that were no longer operating or that had far less revenue and far fewer employees than were listed on the loan applications.

He was released on bail following his indictment in December 2020 but prosecutors said he was not done trying to scam the government. Kukaj violated the terms of his bail by continuing to file false loan applications while on pretrial release that again inflated the number of employees and size of the businesses and by failing to reveal that he was already under indictment.

Williams added that Kukaj “even continued to commit the same crimes while he was out on bail. And he didn’t stop there. He directed his co-conspirator to physically threaten a victim to whom he owed money. For his brazen crimes, Kukaj will serve meaningful time in prison.”

Kukaj was also ordered to pay forfeiture of $1.5 million and restitution of $1.5 million to the US Small Business Administration.

“Manhattan restaurateur Besim Kukaj took advantage of the hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal government efforts to help those in need by lining his own pockets with seven figures of illegally obtained funds.” US Southern District of New York Judge Damian Williams.