Update: According to the FT, JPMorgan has fired several employees accused of pocketing U.S. coronavirus relief funds. The employees had not been acting in their capacity as JPMorgan employees and breaking the law was a violation of the bank’s conduct code, which led to the dismissals. Clearly at JPM only executives are allowed to benefit from billions in government relief funds.
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Yesterday, when we first reported that JPMorgan was probing its employees' role in abuse of PPP funds following reports of "instances in which Covid-relief funds were misused by customers and is probing employees’ involvement in the potentially illegal activities", we said that it was about time the role of banks was put under the microscope because " while it was easy to blame the administration for rushing to hand out hundreds of billions in grants/loans (without which the US economy would still be in a depression), a key question is how and why did the private banks that were gatekeepers for all this capital, allow such abuse to take place."
Well, it now turns out that not only did JPM employees allegedly enable fraud by clients when obtaining PPP loans, the largest US bank also found that some of its employees themselves "improperly applied for and received", i.e. stole, Covid-relief money that was intended for legitimate U.S. businesses hurt by the pandemic, according to Bloomberg.
The bank discovered the actions, which were tied to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, "after noticing that suspicious amounts of money had been deposited into checking accounts owned by bank employees." The findings prompted an unusual all-staff message from JPMorgan Tuesday which according to Bloomberg "puzzled many across the industry for its candid admission of potentially illegal acts by some of its own while not describing what they had done."
What is odd, is that unlike with the Paycheck Protection Program, banks didn’t issue or underwrite the disaster loans and grants. Instead, loans or grants came directly from the SBA, which raises questions how employees of the largest US commercial bank intermediated themselves in a process that should have been streamlined without middle-men.
JPM's surprising findings of illegal employee activity come amid a broader sweep of individual accounts that received business aid. On July 22, the SBA warned banks to be on the lookout for suspicious deposits or activity as part of the EIDL program. The SBA's inspector general has also flagged evidence of fraud in the program, saying it identified more than $250 million in aid given to potentially ineligible recipients as well as $45.6 million in possibly duplicate payments. A Bloomberg analysis of SBA data last month identified $1.3 billion in suspicious payments.
As a result, prosecutors have brought charges against more than 20 businesses for fraud under the CARES Act, which authorized the PPP loan program, and a recent report by the House Committee on Oversight suggested that there could have been billions of dollars worth of fraud in the PPP program. Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, called on the inspectors general of the U.S. Treasury Department and SBA to investigate the program.
“The SBA does not comment on individual borrowers. Evidence of waste, fraud, and abuse with any of SBA’s loan programs is not tolerated and should be reported. ... The SBA successfully distributed 5.21 million loans and $525 billion to small businesses in an unprecedented amount of time, through the Paycheck Payment Program,” the SBA said, misstating the name of the Paycheck Protection Program.
"This is going to be the biggest fraud in government history, the magnitude of which we will not know for many years to come," said Vic Hartman, a former FBI agent and author of a 2019 book about fraud based on lessons from his career.
As such, it is hardly a surprise that banks are involved.
On Tuesday, JPM's leaders sent a memo to roughly 256,000 employees Tuesday in which senior leaders said they were probing whether any staffers helped people misuse aid programs including “Paycheck Protection Program Loans, unemployment benefits and other government programs.” The firm had said it identified conduct by customers that didn’t meet its principles and “may even be illegal” and that some employees had fallen short on ethical standards. The bank also asked employees to report any unethical activity they’d witnessed.
While the bank has identified rampant misuse of the EIDL program, only a small percentage of it has been tied to bank employees, said the person. The bank hasn’t found evidence of wrongdoing by employees related to the PPP program.