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Small business program scrutinized for loans to big firms

NEW YORK (AP) — Congress set aside $659 billion to throw a lifeline to small businesses and organizations side-swiped by the coronavirus pandemic and to help paychecks keep flowing to workers who might otherwise head to the unemployment line.

Yet that’s not exactly how it worked out. Among the 650,000 companies on the partial list of recipients released Monday by the Treasury Department were fashion designers such as Oscar de la Renta, the clothing retailer Candie’s and companies that own hundreds of fast-food restaurants including P.F. Chang’s and TGI Friday’s.

While many companies belong to industries hard-hit by state and local government shutdown orders, they also have deep pockets or the backing of private equity firms. All got loans in the millions of dollars.

Loans also went to private equity firms, venture capital firms, law firms and other companies that might have felt an initial pinch from the economic downturn but seem in better position to weather the storm than smaller businesses, including some that didn’t get loans due to issues with the program’s design.

“While the intent of the program should be applauded, the implementation of the program was fraught with inconsistencies and one could have predicted this outcome,” said Katie Vlietstra, a vice president at the National Association for the Self-Employed.

The PPP offered loans up to $10 million to companies with fewer than 500 employees. The most appealing aspect of the program: possible loan forgiveness if most of the money was spent on workers. Otherwise the loan had to be repaid, with an interest rate of 1%.

The bigger companies didn’t break the law when they applied for loans. The statute that created the program didn’t place a ceiling on the amount of revenue a prospective borrower could have, and a business could get a loan even if it had access to credit elsewhere.

That’s why, some experts say, bigger companies with dedicated accountants and attorneys would have been foolish not to take advantage of the program. Even if they ended up paying back the loans with 1% interest.

“This was a cash gift. Who wouldn’t apply for it?” said Bob Phibbs, a retail industry analyst.

Boddie-Noell Enterprises, owner of 346 Hardee’s restaurants, received between $5 million and $10 million, the government said. The Rocky Mount, North Carolina-based company has more than 10,000 employees.

“We applied for the PPP since it was created specifically for payroll and potentially offered much more favorable terms than would have a traditional bank loan,” said Boddie-Noell spokesman Rick Rountree.

But when the loans were first proposed, lawmakers described them as a rescue for small businesses and their employees. Outrage followed when big players got money in the program’s first round of funding while many smaller businesses were left waiting as the initial $349 billion ran out.

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