County workers’ alleged PPP fraud is shameful example of cooking the books

Cook County taxpayers can be forgiven for feeling as though too many county workers were busy concocting schemes to defraud the federal government instead of focusing on the tasks they were paid to do. It might even bring up pained memories of the 1960 Summerdale scandal, when eight Chicago Police officers conspired to loot North Side stores while they were on duty.

Authorities are right to investigate these alleged schemes, and they should not stop until they uncover every last one of them.

The federal Paycheck Protection Program was enacted to keep businesses going and workers afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to ensure businesses survived until they could resume normal operations. But there are always people who, rather than pull together to try to get the nation through a tough time, think about what’s in it for them.

That doesn’t just defraud taxpayers and the government but also threatens to erode support for any similar program when future emergencies come along. We have no way of knowing who might be hurt in the future, but to risk undermining important programs is simply immoral. And because legitimate applicants could not get help once the PPP money ran out, the fraudsters hurt those people as well.

In the end, taxpayers will have to pay for the program, which is easier to swallow in cases that saved businesses than when, say, someone went out and bought a Lamborghini.

So far, as WBEZ’s Dan Mihalopoulos and the Sun-Times’ Frank Main reported on Thursday, PPP fraud has been linked to agencies that include the office of Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans, the Cook County Board of Review, the Cook County assessor’s office and the office of the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.

On Sunday, the Sun-Times reported that 48 Circuit Court Clerk employees “no longer work” there, and at the Chicago Park District, investigators have looked into PPP loans involving 26 current or seasonal employees. An employee at the Office of the Cook County Public Defender also was implicated.

Workers are legally not guilty, of course, until they have been convicted in court. But it wouldn’t surprise us if people who got indifferent service from these agencies are now wondering if it is because the employees were putting their requests on the back burner while they worked to raid the federal government’s cookie jar, sometimes using county computers while on the clock.

Administrative failures with PPP

The $800 billion PPP program was vulnerable because it had to be designed in a hurry —lengthy vetting processes for loans would have made the program useless for businesses and people who needed help right away in a crisis. Which isn’t to say the program could not have been run more effectively. Last year, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said two financial technology start-ups that reviewed one in three of the PPP applications for lenders were too lax.

Billions of dollars reportedly were stolen across the nation. Some of it will be recovered, but the money spent ostentatiously on lavish vacations, gambling, posh restaurants, plane tickets and other high-living excesses might be beyond reach. Because the PPP loans were designed generally to be forgivable if used properly, any unnoticed conniving cheats who actually got away with their scams will get to keep the money.

Around the country, all sorts of brazen swindlers devised plans to cash in on the PPP, which they willfully interpreted to mean the Pilfer Payouts Program. Grifters also targeted the COVID-19 Economic Impact Disaster Loan program. It will take prosecutors and investigators years to uncover it all, if they can.

Meanwhile, for Chicagoans and others here in Cook County, it’s especially galling when people who are supposedly working to benefit residents are allegedly scamming them instead.

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