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Publicly traded firms get $300M in small-business loans, AP reports

Companies with thousands of employees, past penalties from government investigations and risks of financial failure even before the coronavirus walloped the economy were among those receiving millions of dollars from a relief fund that Congress created to help small businesses through the crisis, an Associated Press investigation found.

The Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to infuse small businesses with $349 billion in emergency loans that could help keep workers on the job and bills paid on time. But at least 75 companies that received the aid were publicly traded, the AP found, and some had market values well over $100 million.

Overall, 25% of the companies AP examined had warned investors months ago — while the economy was humming along — that their ability to remain viable was in question.

By combing through thousands of regulatory filings, the AP identified the 75 companies as recipients of a combined $300 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans.

Eight companies, or their subsidiaries, received the maximum $10 million. The size of the typical loan nationally was $206,000, according to U.S. Small Business Administration statistics. If companies meet benchmarks such as keeping employees on payroll for eight weeks, the SBA will forgive the loans.

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The list of recipients the AP identified is a fraction of the 1.6 million loans that banks approved before the program was depleted last week, but it is the most complete public accounting to date. Lawmakers from both political parties were negotiating an additional relief package that in large part would replenish the Paycheck Protection Program. Agreement was reached on major elements of the nearly $500 billion aid package, said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. He said he thought it would pass on Tuesday.

The White House referred questions on Tuesday to the SBA and the Treasury Department. Representatives of the SBA did not respond to a request for comment. Last Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a written statement that 74% of the loans were for less than $150,000, demonstrating “the accessibility of this program to even the smallest of small businesses.”

AP’s review also found examples of companies that had foreign owners and that were delisted from U.S. stock exchanges, or threatened with removal, because of their poor performance. Other companies had annual losses for years.

Since launching April 3, the relief package has faced criticism about slow loan processing, unclear rules and limited funding that left many mom-and-pop businesses without help.

By design, the Paycheck Protection Program was meant to get money out quickly to as many small businesses as possible, using a formula based in part on payroll size. Some businesses with more than 500 employees could qualify if, for example, they met certain size standards for their industries.

The owners behind large restaurants chains like Potbelly, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Taco Cabana were able to qualify despite employing thousands of workers and get the maximum $10 million in loans.

Some other big companies that received loans appeared to have enough cash on hand to survive the economic downturn. New York City-based Lindblad Expeditions Holdings, for example, a travel company with 650 workers and a branding deal with National Geographic, got a $6.6 million loan. At the end of March, the business reported having about $137 million in cash on its balance sheet.

“When this crisis hit, we had two business planning cases: 1) substantial layoffs and furloughs or 2) receiving these funds and not impacting our employees,” spokeswoman Audrey Chang wrote in an email. “Lindblad is the very rare travel company that has not imposed any layoffs, furloughs or salary reductions to date.”

Five of the companies AP identified were previously under investigation by financial and other regulators, including firms that paid penalties to resolve allegations.

Quantum Corp., a data storage company based in San Jose, California, that has a workforce of 800, paid a $1 million penalty last December over allegations that accounting errors resulted in overstated revenues. Quantum received a maximum $10 million loan.

Without that loan, “we would most certainly be forced to reduce headcount. We owe it to our employees — who’ve stuck with us through a long and difficult turnaround — to do everything we can to save their jobs during this crisis,” company spokesman Bob Wientzen wrote in an email.

The AP analysis found that about 1 in 4 of the companies had warned investors months ago that they or their auditors had significant doubts about their ability to meet financial obligations.

One was Enservco Corp., a Denver-based oil and gas industry firm. In its annual report filed last month, Enservco said it does “not generate adequate revenue to fund our current operations.”

Chief executive Ian Dickinson said that the $1.9 million loan his company received was welcome because he would’ve had to let go more employees than he has without it. Enservco currently has 95 employees, he said.

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“Our employees are really no different than the employees of a nonpublic company,” Dickinson said. “These are funds being used to keep folks on payroll and keep food on their tables.”

That big companies and ones with questionable records received such precious financial aid frustrates Zachary Davis, a Santa Cruz, California businessman who runs two artisanal ice cream shops, a beachside café and a taco bar with partner Kendra Baker.

Before a shelter-in-place order in mid-March, Davis and his partner expected to pay off in May a $250,000 federal loan they used 10 years ago to open their original shop.

“Now it’s just all turned upside down,” said Davis, who had to lay off 70 workers.

Davis and Baker submitted a Paycheck Protection Program application on April 2 — but are still waiting.

“If you’re a little guy, chances are you’re going to the back of the line,” Davis said.

Associated Press writers Michael Liedtke in Berkeley, California, Darlene Superville and Jeannie Ohm in Washington, D.C., and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.