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$4.8 billion meant to keep Floridians employed during pandemic went to businesses with ‘zero’ employees

News 6 investigation shows which businesses got the most in PPP funds

ORLANDO, Fla. – Billions of dollars in funds meant to keep Floridians employed during the pandemic went to nearly 100,000 businesses who reported zero employees, according to newly released data by the Small Business Administration.

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The money was part of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), forgivable loans given out to small businesses through a Cares Act relief package totaling in more $523 billion dollars dispersed nationwide.

Loan information for millions of borrows was recently released by the Small Business Administration, detailing publicly for the first time just how much money businesses around the country were awarded under the PPP.

Scroll down to download a copy of the data News 6 Investigators used in this investigation.

News 6 found Florida businesses received roughly $32 million in PPP loans, meant to support more than 3.3 million jobs.

The loans are forgivable if companies continue to meet certain employment criteria, leading critics like Sen. Rick Scott of Florida to accuse the SBA of awarding millions of “free” dollars to companies who didn’t really need the money.

“I’m glad this information is finally out,” Scott wrote in a statement. “We know there was widespread fraud and abuse throughout the program, and tens of thousands of companies received PPP loans when they shouldn’t have.”

Still other small business owners say money from the PPP kept them afloat. “We went from 80 students to 20 students in less than four weeks,” said Michelle Voeller, owner of Hyer Street Preschool in the heart of Orlando.

When years of savings were not enough, Voeller, like so many other small business owners, faced the realization she may have to close her 44-year-old child care center. “Not only would my dreams of a business be gone, the roof over my head would be gone. Everything that I have would be gone because it is all tied up in loans to this business.”

The $102,500 Voeller received in PPP funds kept her from closing her doors in June. “Without that money, without the Cares Act, it would have all been gone,” said Voeller.

Locally, businesses saw about $5.5 billion going to support more than half a million jobs, according to SBA data.

The same information shows at least eight locally-based companies received the maximum loan amount of $10 million: Aspire Health Partners, Inc.; Bertuccis Restaurants LLC; Buca Restaurants 2 Inc; Bravo Brio Restaurants LLC; Grand Performer Inc.; GrayRobinson P.A.; Healthcare Support Staffing Inc.; and Tijuana Flats Restaurants, LLC.

Scroll down to see statements from companies included in the list above. One company decided to return part of the PPP funds received.

Locally, full-service restaurants, physicians and lawyers got the most money per industry mirroring a statewide trend.

The program was not without those caught trying to take advantage of it. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice arrested 57 individuals who are accused of stealing $175 million in PPP funds.

When it was revealed some national and publicly traded companies received $10 million in loans meant for small businesses, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced businesses who received more than $2 million in loans would receive a full audit before the loan would be forgiven.

(Companies with more than 500 employees could qualify for the loan, but borrowers had to prove their need was applicable under the definition of a ‘small business concern’.)

Critics like Scott say there needs to be more oversight, suggesting that businesses jump through more loopholes to prove the need the money.

Supporters of the program, like Sen. Marco Rubio say facing fraudsters was a necessary evil in order to get money to businesses who needed it most. On Monday, Rubio touted the success of the program during a Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship hearing, and pushed Congress to approve a second round of PPP funding.

It is unclear how 98,093 Florida businesses with “zero” employees listed on their application qualified for paycheck protection money totaling more than $4.8 billion dollars. But discussions are currently underway in Washington to approve another PPP stimulus plan.

While there may be those who take advantage of the program, business owners like Voeller say the money did one important thing: bought her more time.

“To be on the brink of [your business] being taken away, is just devastating. The PPP loan has given us some time, and I am hoping it has given us enough time to get to the other side,” said Voeller.

Methodology:

News 6 obtained PPP data from the U.S. Treasury Dept. via the Small Business Administration. Data for the entire country can be downloaded here.

We drilled down the data to include only Florida business, building out own dataset. You can download that information here.

Local data included zip codes within our coverage area, covering Brevard, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties.

Statements:

We reached out to the eight local companies that received at least $10 million in PPP loans. Below are statements we received in time for our deadline.

Aspire Health Partners – “Aspire Health Partners received a $10.0M SBA PPP Loan on 05/06/2020. On 05/18/2020 Aspire returned $8.1M of the original $10.0M loan. The remaining $1.9M was used to bring back all 121 employees that had been placed on leave without pay, and to avoid future furloughs. The PPP loan has allowed Aspire to maintain full operations pandemic, without interruption, and to continue providing much needed critical services to the most vulnerable in our community.”

GrayRobinson P.A. – “Our top goals when COVID-19 hit were to keep our team safe and fully employed, for the benefit of our firm, our clients, and all the families of the people who work here. We followed all the factors of the Payroll Protection Program, including factors other than the number of employees. We used the loan to pay qualified expenses under the Program; and we are grateful we were able to avoid layoffs due to COVID-19, keep our team together, and continue to serve our clients and community.”

Tijuana Flats, Brian Wright, CEO - “It’s become common knowledge that the restaurant industry has been decimated by this terrible virus and global health crisis. As a privately held business, we don’t publicly discuss financial information about our business. However, we remain grateful to have qualified for and received financial assistance and the help necessary to keep our doors open and employees working through unimaginable challenges. We remain optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”


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