Members of Congress took small-business loans — and the full extent is unknown
At least four Congress members have benefited in some way from the $ half a trillion loan program they helped shape.
And nobody knows how many more there could be.
It is a non-partisan group of legislators that have recognized close ties to companies that have received loans from the program - companies that are either run by their families or employ their spouse as senior executives.
Republicans on the list include Rep. Roger Williams of Texas, a wealthy businessman who owns car dealerships, body shops and car washes, and Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, whose family owns several farms and equipment suppliers in the Midwest. The Democrats include Rep. Susie Lee from Nevada, whose husband is CEO of a regional casino developer, and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell, Florida, whose husband is a manager of a restaurant chain that has since returned the loan.
And, according to aides and lawmakers, there is almost certainly more. But only the Small Business Administration and Treasury departments have this information, and the Trump administration refuses to provide details. This leaves it entirely up to business owners - including elected officials - to decide whether to take out a loan that can be up to $ 10 million.
Democrats have tried to release the list of recipients. But their efforts in the House of Representatives to disclose at least some companies were blocked by Republicans at the end of last month, including Williams and Hartzler, who had voted against the bill. Lee and Powell, along with all Democrats, supported this. All four legislators previously voted for the small business program.
"This is the largest distributor of taxpayers' money in human history, and we need to make sure that taxpayers know where we're going," said the author of this bill, Rep. Dean Phillips, in an interview. The Minnesota democrat added that his bill "was not written to expose members of Congress because, frankly, I expected members of Congress to be open and transparent from the start."
Each of the legislators who received PPP loans either directly for their business or indirectly through a spouse states that the loans were acquired through appropriate channels and as part of a desire to maintain American employment.
Williams and Hartzler spokesmen declined to say how much money was raised under the loans to the company's private lawmakers. Full House Resorts, whose president and CEO is Lee's husband, received $ 5.6 million, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Fiesta Restaurant Group, which employs Mucarsel Powell's husband as a manager, received $ 15 million before fully returning it.
MEP Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., Is voting for the first impeachment article as the House Justice Committee holds a public hearing to vote on the two impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump in the Longworth House office building at Capitol Hill December 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. The articles accuse Trump of congressional abuse of power and disability. The House Democrats claim that Trump's relationship with Ukraine poses a "clear and present threat" to national security and the 2020 election. (Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool / Getty Images)
While it's not illegal for lawmakers to request or accept the money, it has raised new questions about potential legislative conflicts of interest when he creates the next coronavirus bailout, and the $ 670 billion program's strict confidentiality Government. The program has already undergone an intensive review of fees, which helped well-connected companies after reports showed that large companies were among the first to be granted loans while the smallest companies were in line.
It is now being followed by growing complaints about transparency, and Treasury and SBA refuse to disclose recipients after officials originally announced that data would be released through requests for freedom of information. POLITICO looked for the information under FOIA.
Both Democrats and Republicans have vowed that Congress's spending on coronavirus control, including its signature loan program, will be closely monitored. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has so far refused to disclose the recipients of the loans, although he said Monday he was planning to talk to lawmakers to learn more about the loans.
"Among other things, the government should publish the names of all PPP borrowers," a group of high-ranking Democrats wrote to Mnuchin on Monday.
Much of the review by lawmakers who take out PPP loans focused on Williams, one of the richest members of Congress with a net worth of over $ 27 million in 2018. He received a PPP loan for an undisclosed amount his Roger Williams Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership in Weatherford, Texas. The same dealership employs his wife according to his latest financial disclosure form.
"If you are a multimillionaire taking taxpayers' money in the midst of the greatest unemployment since the Great Depression, get ready to explain this decision to the American people," said Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) When she introduced new transparency Legislation last month and Williams called by name in a press release.
Williams was one of 146 Republicans who opposed Phillips' bill requiring the SBA to disclose over $ 2 million in loans. Another of these Republicans was Hartzler, whose family also received PPP loans for several companies.
Advisers to both Republicans said that their respective loans were below the $ 2 million threshold that would have to be disclosed under the bill but would not disclose. A Hartzler spokesman also declined to say which of their companies had received the loans.
"The April public statement is the only information we currently have about PPP," said Hartzler spokesman Danny Jativa.
Phillips' transparency legislation would initially have published the names of all companies that had received a loan, although he had agreed to set a $ 2 million disclosure threshold under an agreement with some of his GOP colleagues. But the bill, which won the support of 38 Republicans, dropped only a handful of votes, which impressed Phillips and other Democrats who expected it to be passed under a rapid process reserved for popular bills.
"To date, I don't quite understand what happened," said Phillips.
However, conservative opposition to the bill had increased the week before the vote, and Republicans increasingly feared that the measure would essentially "name and shame" companies that receive PPP loans.
French Hill (R-Ark.) MP, who is a member of the Congress oversight commission set up by the Coronavirus Aid Act, says PPP credits should be disclosed under existing SBA guidelines, said in an interview that he believed is that the bill is "superfluous" that "this entire PPP program is already burdened with enormous paperwork".
In the meantime, Mnuchin and some companies have raised concerns that borrowers' disclosure could reveal confidential information about their pay slips.
Phillips said he had started talks with top Democrats to get the bill back on the ground - this time with a simple majority, where it would easily be passed. The newcomer Democrat said he was also open to changes to protect salary data to attract more Republicans while it needs to be disclosed.
"My simple but very strong belief is that taxpayers' money, when distributed by Congress and our government's executive branch, should be transparent and accountable," said Phillips. "Plain and simple."
Nevada Rep. Lee has also been reviewed for personal connections to the program.
The newly minted democrat received an ethical complaint from a right-wing guard dog group on Friday after reporting that she had personally campaigned for SBA to help casinos - like Full House Resorts that her husband runs - access PPP loans . SBA eventually made the change, and the company that Dan Lee employs raised millions of dollars through the program, as the Daily Beast first reported, as did many other struggling casinos in Nevada.
Lee's office said that she had no knowledge of the loans and had no influence on the application. And her spokesman noted that her approval of the PPP gaming fix was part of a cross-party push by the Nevada delegation.
"Regarding transparency, the Congresswoman believes that borrowers should be publicly disclosed, which is why they voted for the TRUTH LAW," said a Lee spokesman in a statement referring to the Phillips bill.
Mucarsel Powell, the fourth lawmaker known to be associated with the program, was also criticized after a $ 15 million PPP loan was granted to a listed company that employs her husband as a senior executive. But the company, the Fiesta Restaurant Group, later returned the money after a nationwide outcry over large companies that had access to help for small businesses.
"Congresswoman Mucarsel-Powell has called for full transparency from which companies have received PPP loans," said a spokesman, pointing out to the Republicans "to block our demands for transparency."
It is not illegal or even unusual for members of Congress to be involved in political decisions that sometimes overlap with their own financial interests. However, it becomes a conflict of interest if members use their position of influence to improve their own reputation.
And blending the two is politically dangerous. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) Faces a tough campaign as she did stock trades during the pandemic, although the FBI has since closed its investigation. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) Was forced to resign, at least temporarily, from his chairmanship on the Stock Exchange Intelligence Committee.
Some transparency groups, as well as some lawmakers, have indicated that unlike some other sections of the $ 2 trillion Aid Act, Congress has not created any disclosure rules for its own members regarding the extensive PPP program.
For example, the House's Office of General Counsel sent a letter to all members in May asking them to identify themselves whether they or close family members have financial relationships with companies that may benefit from a separate Federal Reserve liquidity program.
The same does not apply to PPP.
The desire for more disclosure was bipartisan in the Senate: The chairman of the small business, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), The leading architect of the PPP, asked the administration in a letter earlier this month with Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md. ).) Comply with SBA disclosure practices and publish the names and other details of PPP borrowers. In April, Rubio said Congress was ready to force the administration to disclose borrowers, and "the bottom line is that we'll know who got this money in one way or another."
Williams wrote a long statement on May 5, announcing that one of his companies had received a loan, but was released four days after the Dallas Morning News first reported it. Hartzler released her statement on April 29, a day after it was reported by the Columbia (Mo.) Tribune.
"Like any other company that has taken out a small business loan, our company has qualified to the law and regulations, and today over 100 of our employees are grateful for it," Williams wrote in a note to constituents posted on his website.
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