JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A nasty side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has nothing to do with your physical health: the fraudulent use of Paycheck Protection Program loans made to small business owners during the pandemic.
The I-TEAM has identified $3.8 billion of PPP loans linked to Northeast Florida addresses. While the vast majority of the money is being used for legitimate business reasons, a special inspector general for pandemic recovery has been appointed to oversee fraud cases related to the CARES Act.
Special Inspector General Brian Miller’s position is relatively new but he has sweeping authority. His office has developed leads in more than 100 investigations into suspected fraud cases, which have now been turned over to law enforcement.
One loan that attracted federal scrutiny involved a Central Florida family operating as a ministry.
“The Lord will give you encouraging signs, stay in faith,” says ASLAN International Pastor Evan Williams, in a video posted to his Facebook page.
The family ran ASLAN International out of a small office in Orlando, but according to the Department of Justice, nobody ever saw any activity at the office.
Investigators said Evan Williams, his wife, Mary Jane, and adult children, Josh and Joy, attempted to buy a $3.5-million home in the Four Seasons Private Community at Walt Disney World. The government said the family defrauded the government out of $8.4 million in PPP loan money.
The government is now getting that money back through a civil judgment.
Miller and his team look for a variety of red flags, when searching for cases of fraud.
“Sometimes they overstate their assets or overstate their liabilities. Sometimes they say have more employees than they have. Sometimes they create fraudulent corporations, so they have shell companies so they can go back and get loans for other companies that don’t exist on paper,” Miller told the I-TEAM.
Miller said it is especially troubling when he hears that people used money the government allocated to help people suffering during the pandemic to buy Lamborghinis, boats and houses.
“That really gets me. That galls me,” Miller said. “We came across something recently where they bought a yacht, an airplane and we want them to know that we will catch you. We are looking at all the information we can.”
News4Jax has learned the extent of the fraud is so widespread that the Department of Justice is hiring local trial attorneys, anticipating extremely large caseloads and prosecutions that could drag on for years. Miller’s office and others in the Justice Department are relying on local, state and federal resources at every level to get the taxpayer’s money back.
To give you an idea of how much money was borrowed to keep small businesses running, the I-TEAM broke down the latest data from the Small Business Administration on PPP loans going to businesses in just the 11 counties of Northeast Florida. Here is a breakdown of the categories of businesses which collectively borrowed the most money:
|$355,385,549||Food Service, including restaurants and caterers|
|$230,320,525||Nonprofits (including religious organizations and schools)|
|$213,516,065||Doctors and dental offices|
|$131,372,294||Contractors, including electricians, plumbers and air conditioning companies|
Sen. Marco Rubio points out that the majority of small business owners used the PPP loan money correctly and relied on it to keep their businesses open during the height of the pandemic.
“The future of the Paycheck Protection Program now is to get people the forgiveness, if they spent the money the way it supposed to be spent, and that was keeping employees retained, that’s the whole purpose of the program,” Rubio said.
Under the PPP loan guidelines, borrowers qualify for loan forgiveness if they meet certain requirements for 24 weeks after getting the loan, including using the money for payroll and other eligible expenses.
Rubio is also aware of the growing fraud, saying it’s important that the federal government holds those who misused CARES Act money accountable.
“I think the key is to find the people who have abused the program and put them in jail and make an example out of them,” Rubio said. “I think you are going to see investigations in the years to come.”
If you want to report suspected CARES Act fraud, you can call the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery’s hotline at 202-927-7899. For a full list of local businesses that received PPP money and how much they received, we’ve created a database below to search.