Politico first reported that a small group of Republicans and Democrats have close ties to businesses that received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, an integral part of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and related economic shutdown. Under the aid program, businesses with fewer than 500 employees can receive forgivable loans of up to $10 million.
Republicans on the list include Texas Rep. Roger Williams, one of the wealthiest members of Congress who made his estimated $27.7 million fortune from multiple auto dealerships in northern Texas and some valuable real estate, and Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, whose family owns farms and equipment suppliers across the Midwest. Those on the Democratic side include Nevada Rep. Susi Lee, whose husband is a chief executive of a casino developer, and Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell, whose husband is an executive at a restaurant chain that has since returned the loan.
It’s not illegal for lawmakers, or their family members, to apply for or receive the federal aid money. But it raises questions about possible conflicts of interest as pressure mounts on the Trump administration and Congress to release the names of businesses that received loans.
So far, the Small Business Administration has not made public the list of roughly 4.6 million businesses that have received close to $513 billion in government-backed aid. But the program -- which already faced heavy scrutiny for granting multimillion-dollar loans to big, publicly traded companies -- is now plagued by growing calls for increased transparency.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last week while testifying before the Senate Small Business Committee that the agency would not disclose the names of loan recipients; however, on Monday, Mnuchin said he plans to talk with lawmakers about program oversight.
"I will be having discussions with the Senate @SmallBizCmte and others on a bipartisan basis to strike the appropriate balance for proper oversight of #ppploans and appropriate protection of small business information," Mnuchin tweeted on Monday morning.
Republicans and Democrats have both urged the Trump administration to release the list of loan recipients in recent weeks. At the end of May, 38 Republicans and 231 Democrats voted in favor of a PPP disclosure bill. Williams and Hartzler were among the Republicans who voted against the legislation, while Lee and Powell joined all of the Democrats in supporting it.
“Among other steps, the Administration should release the names of all PPP borrowers,” a group of senior Democrats wrote in a letter on Monday addressed to the SBA and Treasury.
Here’s a closer look at the four representatives with close connections to businesses that received the loans:
Rep. Roger Williams
The Texas Republican received a PPP loan for an undisclosed amount for his Roger Williams Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership in Weatherford, Texas, Politico reported. Williams’ wife is employed at the dealership.
In a statement to FOX Business, Williams' office said he has been "transparent and open" about receiving the loan, which they said kept every one of his employees on payroll.
"He’s spent his entire life on Main Street and brings that expertise with him to Congress where he leads the fight for small businesses," the office said. "Those set on criticizing his family business’s decision to utilize a loan to preserve jobs are really saying they would rather see Texans in the unemployment line, unable to provide for their loved ones."
The dealership told the Dallas Morning News that “like millions of small businesses across America, our family-owned business was not immune to the economic damage caused by the government’s shelter-in-place orders and the impacts of COVID-19.”
“Fortunately, like countless other American small businesses, we applied through our local bank and have been able to keep over 100 employees on payroll and prevent their families from experiencing further hardships during this unprecedented pandemic,” the dealership said.
He was called out by name in a news release sent out by Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., when she introduced a bill calling for increased accountability in the PPP.
“If you’re a multimillionaire taking taxpayer money in the middle of the biggest unemployment since the Great Depression, get ready to explain that decision to the American people,” she said.
Rep. Susie Lee
Full House Resorts, of which Lee’s husband is the president and CEO, received $5.6 million through the PPP, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
According to the filings, a casino operator based in Summerlin South, Nevada, planned to use the funds to “rehire several hundred employees at Rising Star and Bronco Billy’s in preparation for the reopening of these businesses.”
Lee, a Nevada Democrat, was slapped with an ethics complaint from a right-leaning watchdog group last week after reports that she personally lobbied the SBA to help casinos tap the aid program. The SBA did make the change. Lee and her husband Dan Lee own millions of dollars in stock and options in Full House Resorts.
Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler
Hartzler’s family, which owns farms and equipment suppliers across the Midwest, received a PPP loan for under $2 million, she told FOX Business in an emailed statement, meaning it will not automatically be audited by the government before it’s forgiven. It’s unclear which businesses had received the loans.
She said the loan helped keep more than 50 workers employed at the family farm and their three farm-equipment stores in western Missouri and one in eastern Kansas.
"The employees who work in our small businesses, many who have been with us longer than I have been in Congress, deserve job security as well and shouldn’t be denied that because I represent them in Washington," she said in the statement.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell
Fiesta Restaurant Group, which employs Mucarsel Powell's husband as an executive, received $15 million in federally backed money through the PPP before returning it in full, according to an SEC filing from the end of April.
A spokesperson for Murcasel Powell told FOX Business her husband, a vice president who works in the legal department at Fiesta Restaurant Group, played no role in obtaining the loan. Fiesta is the parent company of Pollo Tropical, which has several locations throughout Florida.