CODY – The Wyoming Business Council is putting several measures in place to mitigate and manage against fraudulent claims stemming from its CARES Act COVID-19 business relief program.
Since the program began in early June, the WBC has been charged with sifting through applications from 5,599 businesses and nonprofits to disburse $426.2 million. Around 6% of applications were denied.
“I think we’ve done a good job getting money in the hands of those who need it most,” said Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council, during a virtual board meeting Nov. 12.
In an effort to make sure funds disbursed were needed for all, WBC hired Cheyenne-based McGee Hearne & Paiz LLP for up to $1 million to perform an audit of select businesses that received funds through the five grant programs.
Businesses will be chosen upon establishment of a “risk criteria” for funding recipients, WBC said in a release. This audit will include the recently closed Agriculture and Endurance Funds grants, which Dorrell said nearly 200 applied for on the first day available to the public.
“We’re focusing on the most obvious cases,” Dorrell said. “We’re doping it in a way that shows the federal government and taxpayers around the state … the situation is being handled.”
WBC already performed its own auditing through checks of state and federal boards and databases before approving funds for applicants, as well as offering webinars and other assistance.
But Dorrell and others acknowledged this was likely not enough to stop every bad apple, considering WBC was trying to release the funds in an efficient manner to prevent businesses from going under.
“Speed does not always mean perfection,” said board member Kim DeVore, CFO of Jonah Bank of Wyoming.
Dorrell admitted even this extra audit process may not catch every offender, but said some particularly egregious cases are already being reviewed by the Wyoming Secretary of State and Wyoming Department of Audit.
Businesses selected for the audit will need to provide tax returns and other receipts. In some instances these forms of proof were not required in original applications.
Anyone found guilty for fraudulently claiming funds could face up to 30 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.
WBC is offering a “safe harbor” for businesses to return funds, which Dorrell said has resulted in $500,000 in returned money. He said this money hopefully will be made available again in future relief grants.
Any businesses wishing to return funds can do so at wyobizrelief.org. Returning complete funds will remove a business from the audit list if submitted by next Monday. A return of complete funds will not require any supporting documentation. The final deadline for returning funds is Dec. 18.
A tip site is also now available at docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeNwTWUgtAUxQzGLPCu21kczEkuTN2SCIEJ1tF4pAVTEEIeig/viewform for people who would like to report a business that has performed possibly fraudulent activity in its grant application. All information disclosed is anonymous but is subject to review and disclosure under the Wyoming Public Records Act.
Any future expenditures planned from the Relief Funds grants must be spent by Dec. 1. Receipts and proof for all planned funds spent must be submitted by Dec. 15.