Qui Tam Claims and PPP
Paycheck Protection Plan fraud is a serious side effect of Covid-19.
Paycheck Protection Plan fraud is a serious side effect of Covid-19.
When the government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), it created the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP). The PPP was intended to enable small businesses to borrow money to pay workers and bills, and the loan can be forgivable if certain criteria are met.
But the loose rules, massive popularity, and eventual audits could create a False Claims Act firestorm. It’s important for business owners and potential whistleblowers to understand what’s happening.
Do you know someone who lied on their PPP application? Did they lie about their number of employees, fire employees after applying, or misclassify the people who work for them? Even if your employer paid back their fraudulently-obtained PPP loan, you could still have a whistleblower case.
You may have been personally affected by your employer’s possible fraud. Were you expecting to keep your job thanks to your employer’s PPP loan, but got terminated anyway?
There’s an easy way you can figure out if your employer (or former employer) may have committed PPP fraud. Their application paperwork can be found by searching this ProPublica link: https://projects.propublica.org/coronavirus/bailouts/
Did your search make you suspicious of fraud? Blowing the whistle is the right thing to do – and you may be entitled to a significant reward. Even if you’re unsure you have a case, we’ll be happy to take your call at 1-888-292-8852 and give you some answers.
The CARES Act passed on March 27, 2020, pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the Paycheck Protection Plan. The PPP is essentially a loan program intended for small businesses that allowed them to apply for the funds they would need to ride out the COVID-19 crisis, specifically to help pay their bills and their employees.
In turn, if they were approved for the PPP loan and used the funds as the government directed, then that loan could be converted into a grant and the debt would be forgiven, in full or in part. As is often the case with rushed legislation, there have been unforeseen consequences – and there may be more.
What many of the businesses (and the fraudsters among them) applying for loans may not have known was that PPP exposed them to the False Claims Act (FCA).
This becomes a problem for a few reasons.
And, quietly, in the midst of all of this chaos, the idea of a whistleblower becomes incredibly important.
It did not take long for problems with the PPP to surface. Big businesses applied for, and received, loans from the fund early on. This, in turn, used up the money intended to keep America’s small businesses afloat.
Larger, publicly traded companies have easier access to capital. They can sell shares (debt) and borrow from banks against their assets. Two of the more recognizable businesses that fell into the trap were Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, which obtained $20 million, and Shake Shack, which borrowed $10 million. Both companies returned the money.
According to an analysis by Forbes, 71 publicly traded companies received money from the PPP before the money ran out. We know at least some of them returned the funds, especially after public backlash, but what is clear is that they were never the intended recipients.
The PPP’s reliance on borrowers to self-certify their situations and criteria opened the door for massive fraud on the front end. Arrests have already been made. The flagrant cases, however, are not the problem moving forward. Those tend to be rooted out quickly. There are two perspectives to consider.
From the whistleblower perspective, the question of whether a business qualifies is the first possible red flag for an FCA claim. That would be difficult to recognize without a great deal of insider knowledge and a thorough understanding of the rules. An experienced whistleblower attorney could be of great help as well in building a case.
The most likely source of a false claim may be the self-certification process to qualify for the loan. Here is a summation of the rules:
Combined with the alternative size standard mentioned earlier, these constitute the lion’s share of qualifications for a PPP loan. Whistleblowers should be aware of any criteria that may disqualify a business. Intent to mislead may not matter, as we’ll discuss later.
From a business perspective, what seems on its face to be a godsend may be a much greater headache. In the face of rapidly increasing debt and an existential threat to their livelihood, business owners may overlook vital qualification criteria – deliberately or not. There are gray areas as well, such as:
These are just a tiny sampling of the kinds of questions business owners might be asking. Or, perhaps more perilously, they may not be asking. Additional risk comes from the changes to the rules after the fact. It’s hard for a business owner to keep up.
Part of what makes PPP loans so attractive to small businesses is that the loans are ultimately forgivable. They essentially become grants if the business owner uses them according to the government’s guidelines. Again, however, there is no up-front compliance structure on offer. The government is depending on businesses to ethically implement the loan funds, while promising to follow up later in the form of audits to enforce accountability. For loan forgiveness, businesses will need clear records of how funds were used.
Another aspect that makes PPP loans attractive is that they’re simple to apply and qualify for. After all, PPP funds were intended to keep businesses in business, even if they were forced to close their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re easier to qualify for than Small Business Administration (SBA) Disaster Loans.
This resulted in loans with generous terms:
The loans can be forgiven if the funds are used for the approved payroll and expenses listed above.
Again, all of this information feeds two important perspectives, that of the business owner and that of a potential whistleblower. On one hand, a business may be trying very hard to comply and fail. On the other side, a whistleblower may see a massive fraudulent use of government funds. The perceptions may differ.
From a whistleblower perspective, it could be much easier to see how the funds are spent than know how or whether a business qualified for the loan. Are wages being paid? Are benefits being paid? Are the utilities on?
There are smaller, more intricate things at play as well. For example, in a restaurant setting, wait staff may earn very little in terms of wages and depend on tips to make a living. What is being paid? It depends on what the business claimed when it applied – if it claimed the payroll total including the tips earned by wait staff but is not paying that aggregated amount, that’s a red flag.
The nuances that may come about are far too numerous to mention. What’s important for whistleblowers is to be vigilant and gather information and evidence if they suspect wrongdoing. If there’s any question, or you want to express your suspicion privately to determine if you’re witnessing fraud, contact the Carolina Whistleblower Attorneys now at 1-888-292-8852.
From a business owner’s perspective, it is incredibly important to record when and how funds are spent, down to the cent. Not only does this help when asking for the loan to be forgiven, it reduces the chance of being held liable for a qui tam claim under the FCA.
There are going to be businesses that trigger qui tam claims from PPP loans despite their good intentions. Meaning well isn’t going to save them, so it is important to know what’s expected and the criteria for a violation. This same information is useful for potential whistleblowers, as knowing the triggers for fraud may make or break a whistleblower’s claim.
The False Claims Act has a few very specific triggers. In order to violate the FCA, the individual or business must have known that it was making (or causing another to make) a false claim or a false record or statement to get a false claim paid. Under the FCA, knowledge of the falsity is defined as being:
Here are some examples:
It’s important to note that the whistleblower or the government is tasked with the burden of proof in these cases. If proof of wrongdoing is obtained, business owners could find themselves paying many times the amount they borrowed to save their businesses.
In North Carolina, one brazen business owner fraudulently claimed more than $6 million in PPP loans on behalf of their company. The man submitted fake documents including falsified tax filings to support false statements about his companies’ employees and expenses. Of the man’s 14 applications — including for “small businesses” with names like Khaleesi and The Night’s Watch — nearly $2 million in loans were approved before the scheme was uncovered.3
In South Carolina, it took seven individuals to launder $750,000 involving funds from the PPP. At the heart of the case was a fraudulent PPP loan application with misleading statements and fake documentation about a small business’ payroll and number of employees.3
The size of the businesses in question and the amount of the fraud vary, but one thing remains true: money leads to fraud. And rooting out fraud in the Carolinas depends on people like you.
Of note to business owners and potential whistleblowers alike is the government’s obvious intention to audit and otherwise check compliance after the fact. The Justice Department is aware of the potential for fraud, and has a keen eye out for it.
“Every dollar stolen from the Paycheck Protection Program comes at the expense of employees and small business owners who are working hard to make it through these difficult times. The Criminal Division is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to root out abuse of the important relief programs established under the CARES Act.”
— Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division
The government has many ways to investigate and root out PPP fraud through existing and recently established avenues. These include administrative audits and investigations from the SBA, all the way through Justice Department-led civil and criminal investigations.
From the other side, whistleblowers like you can gather evidence, putting fraudsters between a rock (the Department of Justice) and a hard place (the whistleblower).
Whistleblowers should understand that time is of the essence. Not only is the clock ticking to gather evidence before it might disappear, but there is always the chance that the government might discover it first. Bringing a qui tam claim – which is essentially a lawsuit by a private citizen on behalf of the government – has a very specific order. If the government follows up with audits and an aggressive investigation and verification program, the opportunity for a qui tam claim may dissolve very quickly.
Of course, if the Justice Department is already investigating the fraud, a whistleblower has no claim. You can’t bring the government’s attention to a case it is already working. To bring a claim, a whistleblower must be the one to bring the fraud to the government’s attention.
Similarly, the Justice Department, once it is aware of a claim, may choose to take on the investigation itself. While this does not eliminate a whistleblower’s claim, it does reduce the potential reward for bringing the fraud to its attention. If the Justice Department refuses to take the case on, adopting the role of an interested party, a whistleblower can continue to pursue the claim.
When businesses defraud the government, they’re taking money from everyone – it’s all taxpayer money, after all. If your claim is successful, you could receive up to 30% of the total recovery.
We are ready to take on any opponent on your behalf and on behalf of the taxpaying public. We can guide and support you every step of the way. Fraud is happening in front of you. In 2021 alone, the Department of Justice recovered more than $5.6 billion in settlements and judgments from civil cases involving fraud and false claims against the government.
If you’re wondering if it’s a good idea to speak with a whistleblower lawyer about what you know, let us set the record straight.
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