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Which Sarasota restaurants got more than $1 million in federal funds?

On a list of Sarasota restaurants that got more than $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, one stands out. 

The index of the top restaurant grant recipients, behind Siesta Key’s Captain Curt’s Crab and Oyster Bar, lists a $1,685,677 grant awarded to a woman named Heather Perkins, supposedly for a catering business.

Problem is, Perkins said she’s never catered anything in her life. She said she wasn’t aware her name was attached to a federal grant — let alone one topping more than $1 million — until she was recently contacted by a Herald-Tribune reporter.

Perkins said she was baffled that the U.S. Small Business Administration grant had her name on it, and that it was associated with her home address in Sarasota. 

She returned the reporter’s message by apologetically saying they had the wrong person. Adding that she’s never worked in catering, Perkins said she’s been working remotely part-time for a law firm for the past two years.

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The U.S. Small Business Administration recently released the names of restaurants that got money through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The $28.6 billion program was approved earlier this year and the money was quickly gobbled up as restaurants sought more financial relief in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program provides restaurants and other eligible businesses like brewpubs, wineries, bars and food trucks with funding equal to their pandemic-related revenue losses in amounts up to $10 million. Funds can be used for expenses like payroll, utility bills, rent, food and beverage costs and more. 

Companies don’t have to repay the grants, as long as they’re used by March 11, 2023, according to the SBA.

Christalyn Solomon, a spokesperson for the agency, told the Herald-Tribune that the SBA does not comment on individual borrowers. 

“The SBA takes fraud seriously, and, as such, all applicants are required to provide certification of their eligibility upon application. Misrepresentation of eligibility is unlawful, and, when appropriate, these cases are referred to the Office of the Inspector General,” a statement from the agency read. “The Office of Inspector General and the agency’s federal partners are working diligently to resolve fraud incidents. The SBA encourages anyone suspecting fraud or misuse of relief programs to visit: sba.gov/fraud.”

The SBA did not respond to a public records request to produce the grant application documents by publication time.

In Sarasota, the grant ascribed to Perkins accounts for the second-highest award received by any applicant. Only Captain Curt’s Crab and Oyster Bar got more money, a grant of $1,688,438.25.

Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant amounts in Sarasota ranged from a little over $3,000 to more than $1 million. Only seven of the 102 Sarasota restaurants that received funds got more than $500,000, loan data show.

Notable grant recipients included the now-closed White Buffalo Saloon, Il Panificio pizzeria, Kurtos Chimney Cake and Gecko’s Grill on Fruitville Road, among others.

No. 3 on the list was Arthur Wesley Restaurant Group, which operates The Rosemary and Rosemary & Thyme on Orange Avenue.

Chinese restaurant Super Buffet at 5471 Fruitville Road, and steakhouse GrillSmith at 6240 S. Tamiami Trail also both received more than $1 million.

Perkins’ isn’t the first incident of possible fraud involving the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Earlier this month, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that Amy Williams of Holly Hill was listed as receiving a $3.4 million grant, also for a catering business that doesn’t exist. According to the News-Journal, Williams’ grant was by far the largest of the 31 given out in the Daytona area. 

Pandemic-related relief funding mechanisms have led to a significant amount of fraud. 

Linda Miller, principal at Grant Thornton, LLP, in Arlington, Virginia, and leader of the firm’s Fraud and Financial Crimes Practice, said that the fraud prevention systems in place from the government are not up to the same standards as in the private sector.

“Fraudsters realize it’s frankly a lot easier to defraud the government than a private sector company,” she said. “A lot of private sector companies have identity management control. But government systems are not as updated, they don’t have same level of anti-fraud prevention control, and fraudsters know this.” 

Miller, who served as the deputy executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee until earlier this year, said that after high amounts of fraud were reported through the Paycheck Protection Program, the SBA put more identity verification measures in place. It’s not clear what level of fraud exists in the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, Miller said. 

“With all this money being put out and government agencies being in charge of disbursing it, fraudsters flock to these programs,” she said.

In Perkins’ case, someone may have purchased her personal information on the dark web and used it to apply for funding, Miller said. This is, unfortunately, a common occurrence – at this point, most Americans have been a victim of some sort of data breach. Fraudsters use the information from these hacks as currency on the dark web, Miller said. 

The pandemic exacerbated identity theft in the U.S. In 2020, the number of Americans who reported their identity as stolen went up by nearly 3000%, Miller said. It’s estimated that 30-40% of the money lost to fraud in the pandemic unemployment assistance program went to foreign actors working in an organized manner, she said. 

“Anytime there’s a lot of federal money, you’re going to get a lot of bad actors, trying to get their hands on it,” Miller said. 

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Source: on 2021-10-11 06:07:30

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