December 29, 2005
Nevada Tanning Salon Gets 9/11 Loan: Audit
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON -- A Texas golf course, a Nevada tanning salon and an Illinois candy shop were among small businesses that may have improperly received U.S. subsidized loans intended for firms hurt by the September 11 attacks, an internal government watchdog has found.The Small Business Administration's inspector general said in a report made public on Wednesday that in 85 percent of the sample of loans it reviewed, a company's eligibility to receive the money through the program could not be verified.
A leading Senate Republican called for further investigation, but the Small Business Administration said the program was properly implemented.
The one-year, $4.5 billion Supplemental Terrorist Activity Relief, or STAR, program offered loan guarantees to small businesses adversely affected by the September 11 attacks.
However, the Small Business Administration had failed to properly oversee lenders to make sure that only eligible borrowers obtained STAR loans, the watchdog's report found.
Money "may have gone to businesses that were not adversely impacted by the terrorist attacks of September 11th or their aftermath," wrote Robert Seabrooks, assistant inspector general for auditing.
Congress authorized the program in January 2002, and set aside $75 million to cover potential defaults. The program was operated through the Small Business Administration's main loan-guarantee program and the loans were made by participating banks. In all, 8,201 loans were approved totaling $3.7 billion, but only 7,058 were actually paid out.
Of 42 STAR-loan recipients interviewed by the inspector general's office, just two said they were aware they had obtained a such a loan. In cases where eligibility could not be established, 25 of 34 borrowers interviewed stated they were not adversely affected by the attacks, the report said.
The report's examples included the Texas golf course, whose owner was cited by a lender as saying "people were more interested in staying home and watching the attack on television than playing golf." However, the course was owned by someone else when the attacks took place and the justification for the $480,000 in loan guarantees did not apply to the new owner, the report said.
The tanning salon's lender blamed the September 11 attacks for hurting the Las Vegas casino industry which employed many of the salon's customers.
However, the inspector general found the salon's business had grown by 52 percent in 2001 and 32 percent in 2002 and said there was no evidence the owner could not borrow outside of the program. The SBA guaranteed $437,000 in loans to the salon, which were used to expand.
The Illinois candy shop received $21,250 in guarantees but could not back up its claim that the attacks had delayed the shop's opening, the report said.
Senate Small Business Committee Chairwoman Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, said her panel would look into the program.
"If abuses are discovered, many questions must be answered by the parties involved, beginning with how and why was this allowed to happen," she said in a statement.
SBA said it has told lenders it will not honor guarantees on defaulted loans that fail to document the September 11 link.
"SBA implemented the STAR program as Congress intended," Administrator Hector Barreto said in a statement.
The inspector general said it appeared qualified borrowers were not shut out of STAR loans.
(Additional reporting by Diane Bartz)