Early in the pandemic, the federal government tossed a financial lifeline to the struggling orange growers of Minnesota.
The struggling what of where, you may ask yourself. Which is more scrutiny than anyone seems to have given a $17,931 Paycheck Protection Program loan to one "Shaila Big Fresh Oranges" of Mantorville, Minn.
The loan caught the eye and raised the eyebrows of investigative reporters from ProPublica, who have tracked down hundreds of fraudulent PPP loans that funneled millions of dollars to "fake farms in absurd places."
A cattle ranch on the Jersey shore. Potato farmers in Palm Beach, Fla.
A Minnesota orange grove that no one in state government or Mantorville City Hall has ever heard of — even though the loan application claimed the big, fresh oranges have been flourishing for years on Clay Street, in the middle of town, in the middle of southeast Minnesota, about half an hour west of Rochester.
On Google Street View, the address in question looks like a very nice Colonial on a residential street with exactly as many citrus trees as you'd expect to find growing in plant hardiness zone 4b.
A common thread of criminal laziness runs through the hundreds of fake farms ProPublica found.
There was no effort to match crops to their appropriate states or to come up with credible farm names.
Many of the applications appear to use stolen data from people who said they had no idea their names and addresses are now linked to PPP loans for businesses with names such as "Tomato Cramber" and "Beefy King." There was once a Shaila who lived in the house on Clay Street in Mantorville, but public records show she moved away before the pandemic.
All the loans were approved by the same online lender, Kabbage.
In the first round of PPP funding, ProPublica journalists Derek Willis and Lydia DePillis found, Kabbage completed 297,587 loans totaling $7 billion. Kabbage got a 5% cut of each loan.
"We don't want to create the impression that [the Paycheck Protection Program] was a bad program, a bad effort, and not worth doing," DePillis said. "Clearly, the PPP program kept a bunch of businesses afloat, and we'd be in much worse shape without it.
The Paycheck Protection Program was a rushed effort to help businesses cut off from their customers, and workers cut off from their paychecks.
Businesses benefited from the haste. Cheaters ensured there would be waste.
Now investigators are backtracking to try to make sure the cheaters don't prosper.
In February, Donald Trosin of Champlin, Minn., pleaded guilty in federal court to taking out $1.2 million in PPP loans to pay 120 nonexistent employees of his nonexistent business.
Last August, the Department of Justice charged a St. Paul man with taking out an $841,000 PPP loan to bail out his construction company, which had gone out of business before the pandemic. Prosecutors said the money that was supposed to help him make payroll for 31 people went instead to buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and at least $1,000 worth of golf outings.
Meanwhile, each round of PPP funding ran dry before actual Minnesota businesses could secure the loans they needed to stay in business.
The Small Business Administration, which oversees the PPP program, does not comment on individual borrowers.
Kabbage — a financial institution delegated by Congress to process PPP loans, despite the fact that it spells Kabbage with a K — has not responded to requests for comment.
The only way to avoid fraud like this in the future is to track it down and figure out how it happened. In the case of Kabbage, ProPublica discovered that the company had boasted that 75% of its loans were processed without ever passing before the eyes of a human who might blink at the sight of a Minnesota orange grove.
"It's all in the interest of a) making it so fraudsters are prosecuted and don't get away with stealing money from the government," DePillis said. "And b) maybe this can work better in the future and we don't have to rely on the Kabbages of the world and pay them ungodly amounts of money to get money to people."
Kabbage with a K was acquired recently by American Express. The part of Kabbage responsible for securing $17,931 for a Minnesota orange grove has spun off into a separate company, K Servicing, with a nonfunctioning media contact e-mail.