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Rob Landers, Florida Today
DAYTONA BEACH — Among the familiar local businesses that received assistance from the federal COVID Restaurant Revitalization Fund in Daytona Beach, one name is conspicuously unfamiliar.
At the top of rankings of 31 businesses in the Daytona Beach area — with a whopping $3.4 million in relief — is Amy Williams, listed as a caterer with a business address of 208 Bellevue Ave., a modest residential home in Daytona Beach.
It’s an astonishingly high amount, roughly 40% of the total $8.6 million distributed from the fund to 31 Daytona Beach area restaurant and catering businesses, according to a database released by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
It’s also news to Williams, 44.
She said never applied for the grant, never received any money and has never worked in the restaurant business. She told The News-Journal she has no idea how her name ended up on the list.
“I don’t have any money,” said Williams. “I’d really love to know how this happened.”
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The list-topping $3.4 million figure Williams is listed as receiving is higher than the distribution total for the next 11 businesses combined. The next highest total is $557,687.26 distributed to Seabreeze 611 Inc., owners of Razzles nightclub, a nightlife fixture on beachside Seabreeze Boulevard.
Recipient Amy Williams works at Wawa, doesn’t own catering business
In reality, Williams is an employee at a Wawa convenience store on Ridgewood Avenue in Daytona Beach, a job that she only recently started after being out of work for roughly three years as she battled breast cancer. She hasn’t lived at the Bellevue Avenue address for about eight years, she said.
She and her husband, Homer, live with their three children in a Holly Hill apartment. He works as a cook at Fraze’s Scratch Cookin’ in Holly Hill, a restaurant not among the eateries to receive federal assistance.
The owner of the Bellevue Avenue home listed as the business address that received the $.3.4 million grant also was mystified by its inclusion on the list.
“She (Williams) has not lived here for quite some time,” said Edward Eken, 56, who has owned the house at 208 Bellevue Ave. since 1998, according to Volusia County Property Appraisers Office. The two-bedroom, one-bath home is valued at $66,185, according to Property Appraisers Office.
Identity theft is an issue with American Rescue Plan relief assistance
The $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund is part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law in March. It was quickly exhausted by high demand and the program ended in July.
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It provided grants for 101,000 restaurants nationwide — representing about one-third of the 278,000 eligible applications received by the SBA. The SBA received thousands more applications that were not deemed eligible.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund provided restaurants and caterers with funding equal to their pandemic-related revenue loss up to $10 million per business and no more than $5 million per physical location. Recipients are not required to repay the funding as long as funds are used for eligible uses no later than March 11, 2023.
Funds can be used for payroll, principal or interest on mortgage obligations, rent, utilities, maintenance (including construction of outdoor seating), personal protective equipment, supplies and cleaning materials, food and beverage inventory, paid sick leave and certain covered operational expenses.
An SBA spokeswoman contacted Monday offered no specific information about how Williams’ name found its way on to the list of Daytona Beach fund recipients, who might have actually received the $3.4 million or whether the incident is under investigation.
“As per longstanding agency policy, SBA does not comment on individual borrowers,” spokeswoman Christalyn Solomon said by email. “The SBA takes fraud seriously, and, as such, all applicants are required to provide certification of their eligibility upon application. Misrepresentation of eligibility is unlawful, and, when appropriate, these cases are referred to the Office of the Inspector General.
“The Office of Inspector General and the agency’s federal partners are working diligently to resolve fraud incidents. The SBA encourages anyone suspecting fraud or misuse of relief programs to visit: sba.gov/fraud.”
The SBA has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The News-Journal to view the complete application made under Williams’ name. Likewise, emails and phone calls to the SBA’s Inspector General’s office and the IG’s Florida field office in Miami received no response.
If Williams is mystified about how this all happened, one nationally known fraud expert has little doubt.
“Most likely, her identity was stolen and used to apply for a benefit,” said attorney Linda Miller, principal at Grant Thornton, LLP, in Arlington, Virginia, where she leads the firm’s Fraud and Financial Crimes Practice. “That has been an absolutely rampant issue in basically every single pandemic program.”
Before returning to private practice this past summer, Miller served as deputy executive director of the government’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee from June 2020 to June 2021. It was a role that capped a 10-year career managing fraud risks in federal programs for the Government Accountability Office.
“The kind of fraud you’re talking about is not uncommon at all in pandemic programs,” Miller said. “Unemployment insurance was the worst, with states now reporting that 30% to 40% of money paid out in unemployment insurance was lost to identity theft. There also were losses in the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and in tax programs. So seeing identity theft fraud in the restaurant fund is not in any way surprising.”
Miller said that Williams’ case likely will result in an investigation, but that it could take years to unfold.
“They (the SBA) are doing as much as they can to track down and investigate these cases but they are completely overwhelmed with fraud cases to investigate,” Miller said. “They will probably be investigating these cases for a decade or more.
“For the case in Daytona Beach, it’s very likely it will end up in a Department of Justice investigation,” she said. “They will attempt to find the perpetrator and get the money back, but it will be long and arduous and, ultimately, it will likely not be very effective in getting the funds.”
An avalanche of requests for assistance in the wake of the pandemic’s impact and an emphasis speedy processing of applications combined with inadequate security controls combined to create a system that was ineffective against identity theft, Miller said.
“There’s a concept in the fraud world known as ‘pay and chase.’” Miller said. “That means they are paying the money out and then afterward realizing that there has been fraud and attempting to go back with law enforcement resources to get the money back. It’s very difficult when someone has used identity theft to perpetrate the fraud, though, because you don’t know who they are and it’s very difficult to find them. “
Small businesses in need include Zeno’s, 509 Lounge and Hog Heaven
Restaurants, bars and other establishments listed as fund recipients in Daytona Beach also include Zeno’s Boardwalk Sweet Shop at 1108 Main St. near the Daytona Beach Boardwalk ($363,914); The 509 Lounge at 509 Seabreeze Boulevard ($308,401); Cajun Café in the Volusia Mall ($297,480); and Hog Heaven Bar B-Q at 37 N. Atlantic Ave., Daytona Beach ($277,602), among others.
John Louizes, owner of Zeno’s Boardwalk Sweet Shop, expressed sympathy for Williams as a likely victim of identity theft. He also pointed out that the apparent fraud committed using her name also denied assistance for restaurants that desperately needed it.
“We really needed it,” Louizes said of the federal assistance that was approved on June 17, 2021. “Our sales were down tremendously considering that the (2020) COVID shutdown happened right at spring break, right at the end of Bike Week. That’s our biggest time of the year, like everyone else in Daytona. So many small businesses depend on that special help when it’s needed.”
Louizes said that the form to apply for restaurant relief was more streamlined than the PPP application, but still required Social Security numbers for owners, business tax ID number, a profit-and-loss statement as well as tax records for the past two years.
Williams also is upset that assistance designed for local restaurants apparently has been derailed by a scam artist.
“I want that money going to restaurants that really deserve it,” she said. “Too many people are struggling.”
At the same time, Williams is considering what she needs to do to make sure her personal information isn’t compromised again.
“I’m really upset and I just want to get to the bottom of it,” she said. “Who’s using my name? I’ve got to figure out what the next step is here.”