The alleged PPP fraud by county workers is a shameful example of falsifying the books

Cook County taxpayers could be forgiven for feeling that too many county employees are busy coming up with schemes to defraud the federal government instead of focusing on the tasks they are paid to do. It might even bring back painful memories of the 1960 Summerdale scandal, when eight Chicago police officers conspired to loot North Side stores while on duty.

Authorities are right to investigate these alleged schemes and should not stop until they uncover every single one.

The federal Wage Protection Program was put in place to keep businesses and workers afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure the survival of businesses as they resume normal operations. But there are always people who, instead of coming together to try to see the nation through a difficult time, think about what they get out of it.

Not only does this defraud taxpayers and the government, it also threatens to undermine support for any such program when future emergencies arise. There is no way of knowing who might be hurt in the future, but to risk undermining important programs is simply immoral. And since legitimate applicants couldn’t get help after the PPP money ran out, scammers hurt those people too.

Ultimately, taxpayers will have to pay for the program, which is easier to swallow in cases that have saved businesses than when, say, someone goes out and buys a Lamborghini.

So far, as WBEZ’s Dan Michalopoulos and the Sun-Times’ Frank Mayne reported Thursday, the PPP scams have been linked to agencies that include the office of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, the Cook County Board of Review, the assessor’s office Cook County and the Cook County Clerk of Court’s Office.

On Sunday, the Sun-Times reported that 48 county court clerk employees “no longer work” there, and at the Chicago Park District, investigators looked into PPP loans involving 26 current or seasonal employees. An officer with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office was also involved.

The workers are not guilty by law, of course, until they are convicted in a court of law. But we wouldn’t be surprised if people who received indifferent service from these agencies now wonder if that was because officials put their requests on the back burner while they worked to break into the federal government’s cookie jar, sometimes using county computers while on the clock.

Administrative errors in PPP

The $800 billion PPP program was vulnerable because it had to be designed in a hurry — lengthy loan review processes would have made the program useless to businesses and people who needed immediate help in a crisis. Which is not to say that the program couldn’t be run more efficiently. Last year, the House Select Subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis said two fintech startups that reviewed one in three PPP applications for lenders were too lax.

Billions of dollars have been reported stolen across the country. Some of it will be reimbursed, but money lavishly spent on lavish vacations, gambling, fancy restaurants, plane tickets, and other high-life excesses may be out of reach. Since PPP loans are designed to be generally forgivable if used correctly, any undetected insidious fraudsters who actually got away with their scams will keep the money.

Across the country, all sorts of brazen scammers came up with schemes to cash in on the PPP, which they deliberately misrepresented as the Theft Payback Program. Fraudsters have also targeted the disaster loan program for economic impacts of COVID-19. It will take years for prosecutors and investigators to uncover everything, if they can.

Meanwhile, for Chicagoans and others here in Cook County, it’s especially galling when people who are supposed to be working for the benefit of residents are instead cheating them.

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