PHILADELPHIA — Michael Schulson was thrown a lifeline by the federal government's bailout for small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. It helped him get almost half of his 178 employees back to work serving takeout customers and outdoor diners at his popular Sampan and Double Knot restaurants in Philadelphia's Center City.
So he didn't know what to think when he saw his company listed in records released this week by the Trump administration as having received millions more than his actual award from the Paycheck Protection Program — while retaining no jobs at all.
"I was a bit surprised to see the numbers listed," Schulson said. "All restaurateurs are in survival mode now and are doing the best we can."
The faulty data on Schulson's loan are among a mounting number of purported errors, mischaracterizations, and omissions within records released Monday on PPP awards, amid calls for greater transparency around the administration's handling of the $659 billion program.
In one glitch that affected Philadelphia-area loans with far greater frequency than those in the nation as a whole, the data dump from the Trump administration asserted that thousands of loan recipients didn't use the money to save a single job. That's because the release, again and again, had blank spaces where numbers of retained jobs are supposed to be or had a zero in those fields.
In another error, the administration listed firms that say they never even applied as getting millions of dollars.
In this region, a loan for as much as $10 million was erroneously listed as supporting the retention of 500 jobs at a Wynnewood restaurant that has been closed for more than seven years.
In scrutinizing the release, The Inquirer discovered a clue as to why so many firms were wrongly listed as having taken money but saved no jobs. Certain banks were dominant regional conduits for the federal money and those banks often elected not to report job retention figures. The Trump administration had left providing that information optional, bankers said.
Some of the blame for the poor data quality also falls on the rushed and chaotic way in which the program was stitched together. The U.S. Small Business Administration drafted banks into serving as impromptu conduits between borrowers and the government in a frenzied scramble to inject money into a faltering economy at the start of the health crisis.
Philadelphia entrepreneur Alex Hillman, founder of the Indy Hall coworking space in Old City, helped small-business people apply for PPP loans. He describes the application process as "operational chaos": websites crashed, government rules kept changing, and every bank seemed to have its own intake process.
But the data problems are also symptomatic of the administration's reluctance to open the program to outside tracking and vetting, leading it to jettison existing systems for collecting and maintaining records for the public's use, said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
And as more problems with the data emerge, it may become harder to accept assertions by the government about the program's success, Moulton said. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, for example, said when releasing the data that it shows the program had supported more than 51 million jobs, with more than a quarter of the funds reaching low- and moderate-income communities.
In light of the data glitches, "you have to take that broader narrative with a grain of salt," Moulton said.
The records were released nearly four months after federal lawmakers devised the $659 billion program of loans that become grants for businesses when they use the money to get at least 60% of their staff back to work. The program was open only to firms employing fewer than 500 workers.
But until this week, Mnuchin had resisted calls from advocacy groups and lawmakers to disclose who was getting money, even though such information had been routinely shared about similar loans in the past.
When the data were finally disclosed, the administration broke with past practice by not fully identifying awardees and specifying all loan amounts.
For awards of less than $150,000, the records include precise loan sums, but don't identify recipients. For those above $150,000, recipients are identified, but loan amounts were presented as falling within one of five ranges, spanning from $150,000-$350,000 to $5 million-$10 million.
Now, some purported loan recipients are contesting some of the disclosures, while other records have been found to be demonstrably misleading.
Scooter-rental company Bird, and venture-capital firms Index Ventures and Foundation Capital, have all posted on Twitter that they had not received a dime from the program, let alone the $8 million or more they were said in Monday's release to have borrowed.
Left-of-center watchdog group Accountable.US cited those examples in a letter to the SBA this week, saying the data "raises more questions than answers on how the program was administered and raises damning questions on the integrity of the program as a whole."
In Wynnewood, meanwhile, Italian restaurant chain Buca di Beppo was listed as receiving a loan of $5 million to $10 million to save jobs at a store on Lancaster Avenue that has been closed since the first weeks of 2013.
Amy Sadowsky, a spokeswoman for the Florida-based chain, said she did not know why the loan had been ascribed to the long-shuttered Wynnewood store. Funds from the award, and from another similarly sized loan listed for an operating restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, will be used to pay salaries across its roughly 75 locations nationwide, she said.
"The mess that has been made of the PPP program ... is exactly why we called for transparency and oversight of this program from the beginning," said U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat whose district includes the site of the shuttered restaurant, which is now a pediatric clinic. "We need leadership and aggressive oversight."
Labor officials, too, have also noticed inconsistencies between accounts of jobs saved in the data and what union leaders say was the actual workforce.
For example, OTG, a New York-based company that operates restaurants at Philadelphia International Airport, was said to have received two loans worth at least $1.4 million, which saved 335 jobs.
But when the city went into lock down, the company laid off all but about 20 workers at the airport and, as of this week, has recalled only about 80, said Dermot Delude-Dix, an analyst with the union Unite Here.
"For many of the workplaces we represent, the number of jobs retained (in the data) doesn't bear any relationship with reality," Delude-Dix said.
OTG did not respond to a request for comment.
Back in Center City, the award granted to Schulson's 76 West LLC, under which Double Knot and Sampan operate, is listed as having been in the $2 million to $5 million range.
In fact, Schulson said, "we didn't receive close to $2 million."
Seemingly more common than misstated loan amounts, though, is the error that led to Schulson being listed as creating no jobs with his loan.
Philadelphia law firm Zarwin Baum was also listed as having retained no jobs while receiving a loan of $1 million to $2 million, even though it kept nearly all of its staffers employed through the crisis, a spokesperson said.
Housing developer Pennrose, headquartered in Philadelphia, found itself in a similar situation. The SBA release said it had not used its loan — $5.5 million, according to a company official — to hold on to a single job. In fact, the company says it retained all of its 430 employees.
Among U.S. counties receiving at least 10,000 loans, Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks have the top four highest percentages of awards that are recorded with blank jobs fields or zeros for those entries.
Across the city and suburbs in Pennsylvania and South Jersey, about 6,000 of the area's 16,000 loans — almost 40% — were recorded with blank job retention fields, or as having retained no jobs, according to an Inquirer analysis. Nationally, the equivalent rate was only 18%.
Precisely what drove these data issues was unclear.
Some banks appear as having processed particularly large portions of loans that are recorded with blank jobs fields or zeros for their entries. Those banks happen to be the biggest sources of loans in the Philadelphia region, which helps explain the regional prevalence of those glitches.
Specifically, more than 91% of the awards processed nationally by Citizens Bank had blank job retention fields, and almost 71% of loans awarded through TD Bank were presented as having retained no jobs. Citizens Bank and TD Bank are also the biggest and second-biggest PPP award lenders in the Philadelphia area.
Contrary to the data, Citizens Bank spokesperson Steve Brownell said his bank estimates that its loans have supported the retention of about 530,000 jobs nationwide. Shari Rosen, a TD Bank spokesperson, said in a statement her bank's PPP loans have helped retain about 917,000.
The actual form that PPP borrowers fill out is essentially a one-page questionnaire that asks for basic information, such as average monthly payroll and employee headcount, but has no place to enter job retention numbers. Banks use those forms to submit formal loan requests over the SBA's online application system, known as E-Tran.
While bankers had the option of supplying job retention estimates over E-Tran, doing so was not required for PPP applications. So some bankers opted not to, especially since loan-seekers hadn't been asked to supply that information as part of their printed applications.
Citizens' Brownell said his bank made the choice not to put down a figure for saved jobs.
"Some banks did, and some banks didn't," he said. "It was strictly optional."
Rosen did not address how TD Bank handled those entries but said that as a consequence of banks not requiring an entry for job retention, "some data is not accurately captured."
The SBA did not respond to questions, and the Treasury Department did not return emails and phone messages seeking comment.
Despite the confusion, having the records out in public is vastly preferable to keeping it under wraps, as the administration originally aimed to do, said Moulton, of the Project on Government Oversight.
"The agency would be a lot less inclined to try to fix these things on their own if there weren't hundreds of people looking at this data now and trying to figure out what it says."
(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):