FORT MYERS, Fla .– It was government money – your money – on loan to help keep employees on the payroll during the toughest economic times of the coronavirus pandemic.
But data surrounding the paycheck protection program raised questions about whether the program was helping large companies versus small businesses and raised concerns about exactly how the money was spent.
Senator Rick scott is one of the harsh criticisms. He said there had been “widespread fraud and abuse” throughout the program.
Earlier in December, after months of litigation, the Small Business Administration finally released data on every company that received a P3 loan.
Use searchable databases and looking at federal data, NBC2 investigators looked at P3 loans made to businesses in southwest Florida.
In the 19th Congressional District of Florida, which includes most of the major cities of Lee and Collier counties, there were more than 18,000 P3 loan recipients totaling more than $ 1.5 billion.
NBC2 investigators found that much of the money had gone to a small number of companies. The 100 companies that obtained the largest loans received a total of $ 250 million. This means that 16% of the total amount loaned to the district went to just 100 businesses.
In compiling a list of the top 100 loan recipients, NBC2 investigators found that the companies had received loans ranging from $ 1.5 million to $ 8 million.
Among the top 100 companies:
- 17 under construction / building
- 14 in the medical industry
- 8 car dealers
- 6 in the hospitality industry
- 6 in restoration
NBC2 investigators asked FGCU financial expert Tom Smythe if it was too easy for companies to get the loans when the program rolled out.
“I don’t think so,” Smythe replied.
He explained that the idea behind the program was to move money quickly, all with the aim of saving the economy.
“The idea was to say, ‘Look, we’re going to standardize the process,’ Smythe explained. “Lack of complexity error. Recognize that there will be situations where people will ask and get it and shouldn’t get it.
One such case – allegedly – is Casey Crowther, owner of Target Roofing in Fort Myers. The company was among the largest creditors in our region.
Crowther is accused of using PPP money to buy a catamaran and a house by the water. So far, this is the only case of significant PPP fraud in our region.
But Smythe expects that to change.
“There is no way there was only one fraudulent case in Southwest Florida,” he explained.
Smythe said that companies that have received larger loans will automatically be vetted by the SBA, and those companies will be under the closest scrutiny if and when they apply for their loan cancellation.
“As the part of the forgiveness process starts to fall into place and people start to provide information that seems a bit sketchy, we’ll likely see higher fraud rates,” he said.
Right now, Congress is working on another COVID-19 relief program that would include more small business loans. Smythe said the parameters have been tightened, so many large companies that have received loans previously may no longer be eligible.
“While in the beginning it may have been based only on sales or income with very little focus on employees, now there is a much tighter focus,” Smythe explained. “With the current legislation which is being discussed, they are even tightening that up a bit more.”
NBC2 investigators have contacted the five local businesses that have received the largest PPP loans – but have yet to hear from any of them.