Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube

Judge Orders the Release of Data on Emergency Loans for Small Businesses

A consortium of news organizations, including ProPublica, has won a legal fight against the Small Business Administration. It will now have to publicly release the names of borrowers who got government pandemic loans.

A stock photo of the Paycheck Protection Program application form.
Kameleon007/istock/Getty Images Plus

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

After a monthslong legal fight over the transparency of one of the federal government’s largest coronavirus relief programs, a judge in Washington required the disclosure of data on thousands of smaller business loan recipients.

The Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March, has so far dispensed more than $525 billion in loans that can be forgiven if the money is mostly spent to keep employees. The Treasury Department originally declined to release the names of borrowers, maintaining that doing so would expose “proprietary information.”

In May, ProPublica, together with several of the nation’s largest news organizations, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the information. Two months later, the SBA released information on 650,000 businesses that received loans in amounts between $150,000 and the maximum of $10 million, representing a fraction of the total number of borrowers.

But the SBA only disclosed the loan amounts in broad ranges, saying that to be more specific would reveal confidential information about the businesses’ payrolls, and it declined altogether to release borrower-level data on 4.5 million loans worth less than $150,000. It also withheld information on sole proprietorships and independent contractors receiving Economic Injury Disaster Loans, a program that disbursed $192 billion in total, saying that to do so would violate the recipients’ privacy rights.

On Thursday, District of Columbia Circuit Judge James Boasberg rejected that contention, noting that borrowers had been informed via the loan application that such data could be revealed as a result of a FOIA lawsuit. The program is at significant risk of fraud, he added — in September, the Justice Department charged 57 people with violating the rules — and would therefore benefit from additional scrutiny.

“The significant public interest in shedding light on SBA’s administration of the PPP and EIDL program dramatically outweighs any limited private interest in nondisclosure,” Boasberg wrote.

The order requires the SBA to release the names, addresses and precise loan amounts of all PPP and EIDL borrowers by Nov. 19.

The previously released data (which ProPublica has collected into a searchable database) illuminated widespread abuse of the program, from businesses that took out more loans than they should have using multiple subsidiaries, to temporary help agencies that got outsized loans because their contracted workers were technically on their payroll. The data also helped to expose deep inequities in how the program was administered, with minority-owned businesses disproportionately receiving assistance late or not at all.

Have ideas for what to look for in that data? Email Lydia DePillis at [email protected] or get in touch via Signal at 202-913-3717.

Protect Independent Journalism

This story you’ve just finished was funded by our readers. We hope it inspires you to make a gift to ProPublica so that we can publish more investigations like this one that hold people in power to account and produce real change.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that produces nonpartisan, evidence-based journalism to expose injustice, corruption and wrongdoing. We were founded over 10 years ago to fill a growing hole in journalism: Newsrooms were (and still are) shrinking, and legacy funding models are failing. Deep-dive reporting like ours is slow and expensive, and investigative journalism is a luxury in many newsrooms today — but it remains as critical as ever to democracy and our civic life. More than a decade (and six Pulitzer Prizes) later, ProPublica has built the largest investigative newsroom in the country. Our work has spurred reform through legislation, at the voting booth and inside our nation’s most important institutions.

Your year-end donation will help us ensure that we can continue this critical work into 2021. From COVID-19, to our elected officials, to racial and criminal justice and much more, we are busier than ever covering stories you won’t see anywhere else. Make your gift of any amount today and join the tens of thousands of ProPublicans across the country, standing up for the power of independent journalism to produce real, lasting change. Thank you.

Donate Now

Portrait of Lydia DePillis

Lydia DePillis

Lydia DePillis covers trade and the economy.

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page