(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
Now that the paycheck protection program (PPP) has ended, there’s a new story evolving.
It seems like millions of dollars meant to prop up small businesses were fraudulently received by a bunch of bad people. Surprised? Not if you run a small business.
In a press conference this week, acting assistant attorney general Brian Rabbitt announced that the Department of Justice has already charged 57 people who were trying to steal approximately $175m from the program. “The money these defendants stole was taxpayer money,” Rabbitt said. “Every dollar received was a dollar drawn from the American people’s account. Even worse, every dollar they took was a dollar we had set aside to help our fellow Americans weather one of the worst national crises in recent history. As we allege, these defendants tried to steal these funds for themselves.”
The cases are something out of The Wolf of Wall Street. There’s money stolen to pay for Rolls-Royces, luxury yachts, homes and visits to strip clubs. A group in South Carolina is accused of laundering PPP money through casinos and probably using some of it to pay for heroin and methamphetamines. The Washington Post reports that an NFL player was charged with fraudulently using PPP funds to pay for Gucci and Dior items. Politico says that Rolex watches, Lamborghinis and a $3,750 diamond pinky ring were among the items confiscated from alleged abusers of the program.
My goodness, who knew? Oh, that’s right. I knew. You knew. We all knew.
Of course there was fraud. Anyone who applied for a PPP or an economic injury disaster loan knew this was going to happen. I have countless clients who mentioned to me just how easy it was to get approved for these grants and loans. Any business owner who claimed they were “affected” by Covid-19 could get relief, regardless of whether they were truly affected now or just worried about the future. “I could’ve told the bank anything,” one client said to me. “They didn’t care. My banker just told me to get the paperwork in and I’ll get my money.”
But despite these very real scandals these government programs worked. Millions of loans were extended to small businesses that really needed them. Billions of dollars were made available – quickly – to keep many companies afloat, or at the very least provide them with a cushion to operate through these very unprecedented times.
The fraud – hundreds of millions – sounds like a lot. But as a percentage of the overall program it’s probably no more or less than what my allowance is for overdue invoices that will likely not be paid. Could the fraud have been less with better policies? Sure. But waiting around for government bureaucrats – secure in their jobs – to come up with detailed rules and procedures would have cost much, much more.
Of course, the political show will continue. Democrats will accuse Republicans of wasting taxpayers’ money. Republicans will argue that their actions saved the economy. Investigators will root out more celebrities and one-percenters who took advantage and present them on a platter to a hungry media looking for a tasty story.
But there are bigger fish to fry … like propping up a very damaged economy. And let’s also hope that this finger-pointing circus doesn’t stop Congress from doing another round of PPP or some other type of stimulus for those businesses that really need it. Because many businesses really, really do need it.