When businesses tied to members of Congress received emergency loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, they had something in common: The loans went through quickly.
On April 5, two days after the program launched, a group of McDonald’s franchises owned by Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) secured a loan of $1 million to $2 million. The same day, the tractor dealership that Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.) owns with her husband secured a loan of between $350,000 and $1 million.
On April 8, a car dealership owned by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) became one of the first dozen businesses in Florida to receive a loan over $150,000 from BMO Harris Bank; the loan was worth between $2 million and $5 million. A second dealership in which Buchanan has a sizable stake, in North Carolina, received a loan of between $350,000 and $1 million a day later.
The speed of those loans highlights how an emergency relief system that frustrated countless small business owners nevertheless worked quickly and effectively for elite owners. And while not necessarily proof of wrongdoing ― companies of all stripes, including those tied to lawmakers, are facing financial cataclysm because of the coronavirus pandemic ― this fact raises questions about whether lenders prioritized bailouts for members of Congress while tens of thousands of others struggled to tap into the same program.
But given the way the loan program was administered, the public may never learn if there were conflicts of interest.
“Among the 20-plus loans that have been identified as going to businesses affiliated with members of Congress, nearly every loan went through before the first round of funding ran dry.”
All told, among the 20-plus loans that have been identified as going to businesses affiliated with members of Congress, nearly every loan went through before the first round of funding ran dry. One of the few exceptions involved a type of business that wasn’t initially eligible for a loan — a casino developer run by the husband of Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.). That business was approved for loans a few days after Lee and other representatives from Nevada successfully lobbied the Small Business Administration to change its rules.
When the Paycheck Protection Program first opened on April 3, it was with a promise that the federal government would process requests on a first-come, first-served basis. In reality, Congress gave banks wide latitude over lending decisions. Some of the country’s largest lenders, like Citibank and Chase, moved their most important clients to the front of the line and offered them “concierge service,” while ordinary retail customers were forced to apply for loans through broken or overwhelmed online portals. When the program ran out of money after just 13 days, 80% of all small businesses that applied were still awaiting an answer.
Congress has since increased the funding for the PPP from $349 billion in early April to a total of $659 billion. And the program has been deemed a huge success by both parties for helping to save more than 50 million jobs in the face of an economic catastrophe without a modern parallel.
But the initial shortfall wasn’t a problem for many members of Congress or their families. Businesses owned or partly owned by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), Rick Allen (R-Ga.), Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Roger Williams (R-Texas) were all approved for loans before the first pot of money ran dry, according to records recently released by the Treasury Department.
The Fiesta Restaurant Group, where the husband of Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell (D-Fla.) is an executive, received a $10 million loan from JPMorgan Chase on April 14, and another $5 million two weeks later. The company, which trades on the Nasdaq and owns more than 300 restaurants, returned the money after people became outraged that large companies with other means to raise funds had taken PPP loans.
Companies with ties to Congress that received loans in later rounds of PPP funding include the law firm that formerly employed the husband of Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.); he is retired from the firm and retains “no economic interest,” her spokesperson has said. Others included EDI Associates, a hotel investment company in which the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) owns a minor stake, and a winery partly owned by Nunes.
“If you have a company affiliated with an important person and the bank has total discretion over how to process the loans and who to prioritize, who’s the bank going to kiss up to?”
The speed and ease with which Congress members and their businesses were approved for federal aid is not automatically proof of a conflict of interest or an indication that their businesses are misusing the money. And the loans the companies in this story received will allow them to continue to employ nearly 2,800 workers, according to figures the businesses reported on their loan applications.
All businesses had to comply with the same requirements to be eligible for a loan, but the handling of their applications and the order is left up to lenders. Banks had huge discretionary power over how to triage loan applications and few obligations to disclose their decision-making processes.
Businesses with large assets — which describes many businesses owned by members of Congress — as well as those with existing loans and well-established commercial banking relationships, had an easier time receiving aid than small mom-and-pop shops. The Trump administration and banks later changed the lending rules that made that the case. And there were benefits to turning to small regional banks: Hern’s lender of choice, American Bank and Trust Company, only processed 18 loans over $150,000 in the whole state of Oklahoma.
“If you have a company affiliated with an important person and the bank has total discretion over how to process the loans and who to prioritize, who’s the bank going to kiss up to? It’s going to be the member of Congress,” said Richard Painter, an attorney who served in the George W. Bush administration as an ethics adviser. “They’re going to place them immediately at the head of the line.” At least, the banks can do so if they choose.
The PPP loan program was structured so that if there were conflicts of interest, the public would not know. In the past, if a business had ties to a member of Congress, that member had to seek ethics approval from the Small Business Administration before the business could apply for SBA funds. But when it launched the loan program, the Trump administration quietly exempted members of government from that waiver process. The administration cited a need to release aid speedily.
In May, Reps. Allen, Hartzler, Hern, Kelly, Mullin, Nunes and Williams — all of whom own stakes in businesses that took loans — voted against legislation that would have forced the Trump administration to disclose a list of names of businesses receiving PPP loans. The Treasury Department eventually agreed to release the names of large loan recipients under public pressure.
Several financial institutions that loaned to congressionally connected businesses have lobbied Congress or have a web of ties to the members themselves.
BMO Harris, a large multinational based in Canada, has a history of making substantial loans to Florida Rep. Buchanan at critical moments. In late 2016 and in 2017, when Buchanan, who is a powerful member of the House Ways and Means Committee, was helping craft what would become President Donald Trump’s tax cut legislation, BMO Harris was lobbying on the issue and lending Buchanan large sums for luxury purchases: between $1 and $5 million to purchase a yacht and between $5 and $25 million to purchase a private jet, according to his personal financial disclosures.
Buchanan used to sit on a regional board of SunTrust Bank, which became known as Truist after a merger. In addition to getting loans from BMO Harris, one of his businesses got a loan from Truist; the bank made a loan of between $350,000 and $1 million to a Honda dealership Buchanan owns in Florida.
Both loans to the casino companies run by Lee’s husband came from Zions Bancorporation, a Utah bank that lobbies Congress on legislation affecting small business loans. The bank did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Spokespeople for BMO Harris and Truist said the banks did not prioritize loan applications.
“Truist PPP applications were handled through a single application portal made available to clients on a first-come, first access basis, without any preference given to any client, including larger or more affluent clients,” its spokesperson said.
Several members of Congress who voted against legislation to reveal the names of businesses that took loans said the bill created too much red tape for a crucial program.
A spokesperson for Georgia Rep. Allen said he and his wife relinquished decision-making authority in the construction company they own, and that Allen consulted with the House Office of General Counsel about his company’s eligibility to take a loan. A spokesperson for Oklahoma Rep. Mullin said he is not involved in the day-to-day operations of his businesses, a group of heating and plumbing companies. A spokesperson for Lee told The Daily Beast that the Nevada congresswoman doesn’t have any control over the casino company or decisions to apply for or approve loans.
Missouri Rep. Hartzler, whose tractor dealership employs 54 people, said her loan was crucial for maintaining those jobs and that she supported internal government oversight of the loan program.
Roque Planas contributed reporting.