When Quest Food Management Services was approved for a forgivable federal loan to help it preserve jobs during the pandemic, the Lombard-based company, which supplies meals to schools throughout the Chicago area, was so grateful that it issued a news release celebrating its ability to keep more than 830 people employed.
But data released this week by the Small Business Administration detailing who received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program did not tie any jobs to Quest’s $5.3 million loan. Like tens of thousands of other loan recipients listed in the official government data, the line item for retained jobs at Quest was listed as 0.
In fact, Quest’s loan was one of about 20 $5 to $10 million loans awarded to Illinois companies that listed zero jobs retained.
For a program meant to help small businesses preserve jobs amid government-mandated shutdowns and the general economic upheaval caused by COVID-19, those zeroes can look alarming. In many cases they are also wrong — raising questions about the reliability of the data showing how billions in taxpayer dollars are being used.
Quest Foods President Nicholas Saccaro said the loan money allowed the company to call back 832 employees who were furloughed when schools shut down, restore the full hours of 250 employees who had been working reduced schedules, and keep paying their health benefits. He said the company reported those numbers in its loan application, but they didn’t show up in the government’s tally.
“We spent every single penny on employee pay,” Saccaro said. “We didn’t use a penny of it on anything but payroll.”
PPP, launched April 3, offered loans up to $10 million to help small businesses maintain payroll, hire back employees and cover rent and other overhead as the nation faced mass layoffs and spiking unemployment. The loan will be forgiven if 60% is used on payroll over the course of 24 weeks. As of June 30, 4.9 million PPP loans worth $521.5 billion had been approved nationwide, including 202,000 worth $22.5 billion in Illinois.
But more than 550,000 recipients, including more than 9,500 in Illinois, were listed in the official government data as having retained zero jobs. Nearly 50,000 of those recipients nationally, and nearly 1,000 in Illinois, received loans of more than $150,000.
While some companies may not plan to use the money for payroll, in which case they must pay it back, several Illinois companies contacted by the Tribune said their PPP loans were used to retain jobs despite the data suggesting otherwise.
Those discrepancies seem to be the result of inconsistent data reporting. Though loan applications asked for the number of employees a company has, and lenders could provide data on jobs retained upon submitting the applications to the government, it was not mandatory that businesses provide that information, said a Small Business Administration spokeswoman. Businesses will be required to provide it in order to receive loan forgiveness because they will have to show their lender how many employees they have and how much they paid them, she said.
The data gaps concern government accountability groups. Taxpayers need to feel confident that their money is being used as intended, said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a national budget watchdog based in Washington, DC.
“It’s really important for government, particularly when they’re handing out cash, to make sure we get all the information, particularly on the front end because that’s when people will be most forthcoming rather than relying on getting on the back end,” Ellis said.
Employers that availed themselves of the program should also be forthcoming about why they need the money and how they plan to use it, said Ellis, whose own organization received $175,000 in PPP loans to retain nine jobs.
“If a company truly is not retaining any employees, the question is why did you get the loan and when will you pay it back,” he said. “And it has to be asked of the banks, Why did you approve these loans if it didn’t say how many jobs would be retained?”
More than 5,000 banks were involved in processing PPP loans. In Illinois alone, 230 different lenders were responsible for loans that showed zero jobs retained in the government data, according to a Tribune analysis. Celtic Banking Corporation, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, was behind 20% of them. The bank did not respond to a request for comment.
Saccaro, at Quest Food Management Services, said he was surprised to see his loan among those reporting no jobs retained, but figures it was a glitch that may be tied to the fact that he has more than 500 employees. PPP loans are meant for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, but for food and hospitality companies each physical location counts separately.
Quest, which operates in 90 schools as well as some higher education institutions and corporations, saw revenues plunge 85% when Illinois mandated school closures in mid-March to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The PPP money allowed the company to pay its workforce for the rest of the school year, and as a result of keeping them engaged during that time Saccaro is optimistic he can bring everyone back in the fall, even if schools are operating at reduced capacity.
BMO Harris, which processed Quest’s application, is working with the Small Business Administration to address any errors as quickly as possible, said BMO spokesman Patrick O’Herlihy. It was involved in 2% of the Illinois loans that reported zero jobs retained, according to a Tribune analysis of government data.
The questionable jobs retention data has added to the scrutiny of whether PPP money went to businesses that need it most. Though 85% of the loans were for less than $150,000, some big loans went to big-name businesses that likely could access commercial loans.
Chicago-based real estate brokerage Baird & Warner was among the bigger fish to get a loan and had zero jobs retained listed in the government data. But the company submitted paperwork listing 413 jobs to be covered by the loan, according to Marty Bozarch, chief financial officer. He isn’t sure why that data was missing but chalks it up to a glitch.
Eighty percent of Baird’s $5.8 million loan went to covering the salaries of all full-time staff in its brokerage, title service and mortgage services businesses, who support more than 2,400 real estate agents and loan officers in the area, Bozarch said in an emailed statement. The rest was used for operating expenses, including rent for its 30-plus office locations.
A.M. Castle, an Oak Brook-based distributor of steel and other metals, got $10 million in PPP loans, and was also listed in the government data as retaining zero jobs even though a company spokesman said its application indicated retention of 580 jobs. The company, which is public, qualified for the loan under a rule that defines a small business based on net worth or net income rather than number of employees. The retained jobs are across its 11 U.S. locations.
The Chicago law firm Much Shelist, which has 180 employees, was another recipient of a large loan with no jobs listed as being retained. The loan allowed it to keep all of its employees, many of whose daily responsibilities were substantially diminished by remote working, said managing partner Mitchell Roth.
“We have been able to maintain salaries for our attorneys and professional staff, as well as pay rent for our office space that has been closed since mid March,” Roth said in an email. “We care deeply about our employees and our community, and the loan has been instrumental in helping us take care of our Much family, preserve our culture and continue to provide the same levels of service to our clients.”
R.J. O’Brien & Associates, a large futures brokerage based in Chicago, had no jobs retention number attached to the PPP loan it received, also in the $5 million to $10 million range. It declined to provide any information beyond the following statement:
“Amidst the early days of the pandemic, and with information available to us at the time, RJO determined that applying for loans under the SBA Paycheck Protection Program was a prudent course of action to support the economy and use the funds in accordance with the Program to remain at full employment,” said a statement from Jim Gabriele, senior managing director and chief financial officer. “RJO has been and continues to be financially strong, fully operational, and in compliance with all regulatory requirements for the benefit of our customers and employees.”
Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, blames the flawed data on sloppy federal reporting requirements and the highly decentralized application process. Relying on thousands of lenders allowed loans to be processed more quickly during a critical time, but it also meant different banks may have been asking applicants different questions.
“The decentralization is not good from an accountability standpoint,” Martire said. “It’s doomed to not be very transparent and not give you much information.”
Still, he thinks the overall program was beneficial and used properly by small businesses that needed it. While the government should clean up the reporting rules, he said, he doesn’t want the program’s flaws to discourage another stimulus package as the economy continues to reel and people continue to lose jobs.
“I would hate to see the critiques of the misuse of this money by a few businesses get in the way of a better shot in the arm that the economy certainly needs,” Martire said. “The program could just be designed better.”
While some of the curious data likely results from erroneous or missing reporting, the risk of bad actors taking advantage of the system is high when such a large government program rolls out so quickly.
To root out fraud, the federal government in April announced that all loans in excess of $2 million will be reviewed following submission of the loan forgiveness application. Borrowers have to acknowledge in their forgiveness applications that the funds were used appropriately, and if not the government may pursue recovery of loan amounts or civil or criminal fraud charges, according to the Small Business Administration.
Already some indictments have been handed down for improper use of PPP. A Georgia man who was approved for more than $2 million to keep people employed at a trucking company has been charged with bank fraud after he allegedly used the money to pay child support, buy jewelry, and lease a Rolls Royce.
While the government will be keeping an eye on the bigger fish, banks also monitor suspicious activity and sometimes a tipster, like a former employee, tips off authorities to shady use of funds, said Nekia Hackworth Jones, a former U.S. assistant state’s attorney and fraud investigator who now leads the white-collar defense and government investigations practice in the Atlanta office of law firm Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough.
Hackworth Jones said a unique aspect of PPP was that the program was based on an honor system. The documentation requirements that banks received from the Small Business Administration were much more lenient than they are for other SBA programs, she said.
She expects accountability to come at the back end with the loan forgiveness applications and audits. She is advising clients to put their PPP loans in a separate bank account, spend the money via electronic means so there is a record of where it went, and keep documentation readily available.
Hackworth Jones said she has noticed a high level of coordination between government agencies to investigate PPP loans.
“It can give the taxpayers some degree of comfort that the government is trying to keep its eye on the ball,” she said.
Jonathon Berlin and Jennifer Smith Richards contributed to this report.