By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
More than 8,000 businesses throughout Wyoming received a portion of $420 million dollars in federal CARES Act money that was distributed by the state to survive the coronavirus pandemic and set themselves up to thrive in the future.
But Josh Dorrell, the Executive Director of the Wyoming Business Council, said not all of that money was obtained in the proper way, leading to requests for repayment of about $8.5 million.
“Unfortunately, there are folks out there who look at ways to take advantage of systems and, and, you know,” he admitted. “You’re going to have folks out on the edges, who maybe shouldn’t have taken advantage of these programs, but did.”
Doorbell pointed out that a number of checks and balances were put in place to hamper any attempts to defraud the process.
“As we rolled these programs out, and afterwards, we analyzed the data to really understand what businesses needed to be audited,” he explains. “And we worked with a third party auditing company that does this for a living.”
Some of the companies returning money did so of their own volition.
Tony Beaverson, who owns Big Horn Cinemas in Cody, said he was one of those who voluntarily returned funds – in his case, $160,000 – because he knew he wouldn’t be able to spend the money within the time allowed by the rules set for that particular fund.
“The total amount that I was granted with $510,000,” he said. “I returned $160,000, which was the entire Mitigation Fund, which was basically for expenses specifically related to COVID. It was very date specific – the money had to be spent by December of 2020.”
He noted that he applied for the funding knowing that there was a chance he could be audited, so he said he made sure he had his numbers correct.
But other businesses were forced to return thousands of dollars each after an audit, according to Dorrell.
“We ended up auditing, I believe 334 businesses, maybe even more, and taking a look at the specifics of how they applied, what the numbers that were that they used, and whether that was appropriate use of funds or not.”
Dorrell said it is not within the Wyoming Business Council’s authority to investigate fraud – the agency is leaving that task to other agencies.
“We’re working with the proper authorities at the federal level, to be able to investigate and, and really take care of those situations,” he said.
Dorrell said some business owners may face criminal charges – but added on the whole, he believes Wyoming businesses acted responsibly.
“You’re always going to have those folks who break the rules and look for those opportunities,” he said. “But I’m just really impressed when I hear stories like that – people saying, ‘Look, I didn’t need the money. I don’t deserve the money. I’m going to give it back.’ To me that says a lot about our businesses in Wyoming.”