Owners of companies that plan to apply for financial assistance through the recently enacted Paycheck Protection Program should err on the side of caution, advises white-collar criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Dan Guthrie.
The $349 billion program to help small businesses that have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic comes with several parameters. Eligible businesses (those with 500 or fewer employees) can qualify for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration to cover 2.5 times their monthly payroll average for the period from March 15, 2020 until June 30, 2020. The loan will be totally forgiven, but only if a business can properly document that the money was spent on the following categories: payroll costs, mortgage or rent payments, group health care premiums and retirement benefits.
“This program is really favorable to small businesses, and it will be a lifeline to many who are hurting right now,” says Guthrie, of Dallas’ Law Offices of Dan C. Guthrie, Jr. “But companies should know that the government is going to be on high alert for fraud. Every U.S. Attorney’s office has already been instructed to designate a Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, so businesses must resist the temptation to inflate the amount of their payroll or do anything else with even a whiff of fraud.”
“Those who apply for the funding will be required to attest that all the information they are providing is correct, and ‘that any false statements can subject you to civil and criminal liability,'” Guthrie says. “After Hurricane Katrina, the government prosecuted more than 1,400 people for various types of fraud related to that disaster. Because the COVID-19 aid package is so much bigger than Katrina, we will most likely see many times that.”
“I understand that most small businesses are really nervous right now,” he says. “The future is uncertain. But I would strongly counsel any small company to stay within both the letter and the spirit of the law when seeking this kind of financial assistance.”