By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of loans worth billions of dollars may have been subject to fraud, waste and abuse in the $659 billion taxpayer-funded Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aimed at helping small U.S. businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report released by Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday.
Over $1 billion went to companies that received multiple loans, in violation of the program’s rules, the House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said.
At an afternoon hearing, the panel’s chairman, Democratic Representative James Clyburn, chided Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for saying previously that delivering aid quickly made it inevitable for Treasury to run into issues of waste.
“That is a false dichotomy. Taxpayers should not have to choose between quickly getting aid to those who need it and wasting federal funds. And there are simple steps that could have been taken to improve oversight and reduce fraud,” Clyburn said.
Democrats in Congress and the Trump administration have been at loggerheads since July over further steps to bolster the economy after Congress approved trillions of dollars in March to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are sensitive to the fact that there is more work to be done and certain areas of the economy require additional relief,” Mnuchin told the committee.
The PPP provided more than 5.2 million forgivable loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) by the time it ended on Aug. 8.
The SBA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Trump administration says the PPP has saved some 51 million jobs at a time when much of the U.S. economy has been shuttered due to the coronavirus.
Economists say the actual impact is far lower, likely between 1 million and 14 million jobs.
Republicans on the committee issued their own report saying the small business loan program had avoided fraud to the extent that is typical with other large government relief programs, such as those following Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.
The Democratic-led panel found more than 600 loans went to companies that should have been ineligible because they had been barred from doing business with the government. Another 350 loans went to contractors with previous performance problems.
Nearly $3 billion went to businesses that were flagged as potentially problematic by a government-contracting database.
Staff found evidence that as few as 12 percent of Black and Hispanic business owners received the full funding they requested.
The SBA’s internal watchdog has also found “strong indicators” of potential PPP fraud.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Chizu Nomiyama, Steve Orlofsky and Richard Chang)