Treasury chief refusing to disclose recipients of virus aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — Building ramparts of secrecy around a USD600 billion-plus coronavirus aid programme for small businesses, United States (US) Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has moved from delay to denial in refusing outright to disclose the recipients of taxpayer-funded loans.

Mnuchin told Congress at a hearing this week that the names of loan recipients and the amounts are “proprietary information”. While he claimed the information is confidential, ethics advocates and some lawmakers see the move as an attempt to dodge accountability for how the money is spent.

Businesses struggled to obtain loans in the early weeks of the programme, and several hundred publicly traded companies received loans despite their likely ability to get the money from private financial sources. Publicly shamed, a number of big corporations said they would return their loans.

“Given the many problems with the programme, it is imperative American taxpayers know if the money is going where Congress intended — to the truly small and unbanked small business,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Friday. “The administration’s resistance to transparency is outrageous and only serves to raise further suspicions about how the funds are being distributed and who is actually benefiting.”

The Small Business Administration (SBA) — an agency with about 3,200 employees and an annual budget shy of USD1 billion — is shouldering the massive relief effort for US small businesses and their employees left reeling by the economic punch of the pandemic. A signature piece of Congress’ multitrillion-dollar coronavirus rescue, and touted by US President Donald Trump, the unprecedented lending programme is intended to help small employers stay afloat and preserve jobs in a cratering economy losing tens of millions of them.

About 10 weeks after the Paycheck Protection Program was launched, the SBA says it has processed 4.5 million loans worth USD511 billion. But it has yet to make public the recipients of taxpayer aid. The agency has only provided general information, such as the total amounts of loans awarded in a given time period.

The loans can be forgiven if businesses use the money to keep employees on payroll or rehire workers who have been laid off.

South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, who heads a House subcommittee overseeing the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, said he intends to push vigorously for greater transparency in the wake of Mnuchin’s remarks.

“Hiding recipients of federal funds is unacceptable and must end,” Clyburn, a Democrat, said in a statement to The Associated Press. “American taxpayers deserve to know if their money is being used to help struggling small businesses, as Congress intended, or instead is being siphoned off through waste, fraud and abuse.”

At least one Republican lawmaker shared the frustration over Mnuchin shutting the door on the data. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri was angered after SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza told him that confidentiality also applies to Paycheck Protection Program loans made to Planned Parenthood or its affiliates.

“We learned nothing new about what the SBA has been doing to rectify this, or if any of the funds have been paid back,” Hawley said in a statement Friday. “As far as we know, Planned Parenthood has taken USD80 million in taxpayer money straight to the bank. It’s unacceptable and I won’t stop until I get answers.”