Court orders far more specific disclosure for PPP borrowers

Smaller borrowers whose identities and amounts received under the Paycheck Protection Program had previously been kept under wraps are facing full disclosure of that information later this month following a court decision handed down last week.

If fully enacted by its court-ordered deadline of Nov. 19, the thousands of transportation-related companies that received less than $150,000 under PPP will see those amounts and their identities released to the public. Borrowers who received more than $150,000 already had that information released over the summer.

Additionally, the court ruling will require that the data already released for companies that received $150,000 or more in PPP loans will have the specific size of the loan disclosed, rather than just the current practice of disclosing the range that the loan is in. 

In a ruling issued last week by Judge James Boasberg in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, several news organizations prevailed in a suit against the Small Business Administration, which supervised PPP, seeking full disclosure of all the borrower information. Boasberg ruled in favor of the news organizations’ suit, and required full disclosure by Nov. 19, two weeks from the day the decision was handed down.  

A spokeswoman for the SBA had no comment about whether the agency would appeal or move immediately to disclose.

More than 22,600 firms classified under the Transportation & Warehousing NAICS code received PPP payouts of $150,000 or more. Data on those loans was released in July, all  identifiable by name. The NAICS code for 3PLs included about 4,200 loans in excess of $150,000.

The specific size of the loan is not now disclosed. Instead, the data on each of the $150,000-plus borrowers identifies the range of the loan they received, with the smallest category at $150,000 to $350,000 and the largest in the range of $5 million-$10 million. 

But loans less than $150,000 were only disclosed by state, ZIP code and NAICS code without the company name. Somebody reviewing the data could then know that a company in a certain NAICS sector in a particular ZIP code got a loan of $150,000 or less, but that would be the extent of what they could figure out.

Also, the NAICS information on the state level is not aggregated, requiring a manual exercise to determine how many companies in a particular NAICS sector in a certain state got money. And for a national reading, those state-by-state reports would need to be aggregated.

The PPP program ended in early August after an extension from the first program closed at the end of June. It disbursed $525 million in loans that either need to be paid back or can be forgiven if the borrower can justify that the money was used for the purposes permitted under the program, which primarily were payroll support and employee retention. It had more than $650 million authorized to be spent and failed to find enough takers for all that money, even after the extension.

SBA gave out 5.2 million loans. The average size ended up a bit more than $100,000, a figure that consistently declined over the life of the program, which began in April. The big recipients got their loans early. The average loan got steadily smaller to take down the average to its final number. 

While the PPP was put together quickly and presumably did keep employees on payroll who otherwise would have lost their jobs, the retrospective of it has not been kind. Applications for forgiveness have not been acted upon quickly, according to press reports. There already have been indictments of individuals for getting PPP money and spending it on personal purchases such as expensive cars. Banks that processed the loans are reportedly finding that the fees they collected barely covered their costs.

Still, there’s a lot of information about who got what that has not been disclosed. Boasberg said there was no legal basis for keeping that information from the public. 

In making his ruling, the judge acknowledged some of the problems with the program so far. The plaintiffs “point to questions surrounding the PPP’s effectiveness in achieving its goal of supporting small businesses and encouraging them to keep their workers on the payroll,” Boasberg wrote. He cites evidence submitted by the plaintiffs that “many small firms didn’t  receive money in the initial round of funding” even as many larger companies with greater access to other capital received funds.

“Numerous cases … have recognized a public interest in determining whether government programs dispensing taxpayer money involve fraud, waste, or abuse,” the judge wrote, swatting away SBA arguments to limit disclosure primarily on the grounds of confidentiality.

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