Federal COVID-19 relief is weaponized in the special election

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Posted February 28, 2023 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

During the run-up to the March 7 special election for Florida House District 24, candidates Charlie Stone, Jose Juarez, and Dr. Stephen Pyles have come under attack for their acceptance of COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government during the pandemic.

Campaign rhetoric during candidate forums and in negative mailers tied to another of the candidates in the race, Ryan Chamberlin, has recoined federal relief under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) into “bailouts” or money “stolen” from taxpayers.

The allegations fall apart when the details and the program are objectively examined. According to the last report posted to the Small Business Administration’s website, more than 11 million businesses nationwide received PPP loans and at least 93% of those loans were entirely forgiven because the recipients followed the rules set out by the government.

Ironically, the reason why there is a vacant District 24 seat, and thus a special election expected to cost Marion County taxpayers $500,000, is because of alleged fraud related to a second pandemic-related business relief program. Former State Rep. Joe Harding, an Ocala Republican, resigned the seat in December after being indicted on several federal fraud charges related to his receiving low-interest loans for defunct businesses under the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL Program), also administered through the Small Business Administration.

Juarez owns Victory Solutions, a niche marketing company serving motorcycle dealerships all over the country for 20 years. The company lost the majority of its business when the pandemic hit and many of those dealerships had their supply chains interrupted and stores were forced to close down under the circumstances.

“The PPP money was used to keep my employees, rather than send them to unemployment lines, while we pivoted to find other ways to earn revenue,” Juarez said.

Stone similarly said he used the PPP money to help the employees of his company, Stone Petroleum Products. He said he expected the economy would bounce back and he wanted to keep his team together during the pandemic-fueled economic downturn.

Pyles said he used the PPP money according to the guidelines and was granted 100% forgiveness for the loan.

Stone and Juarez also said they received forgiveness of their loans based on how they utilized those funds under the program guidelines, putting them among millions of other business owners in the United States who followed the rules and kept their businesses afloat during a worldwide crisis, as opposed to “scamming taxpayers’’ or stealing federal dollars.

As for who is making the accusations, Juarez indicates he believes the source is the Chamberlin campaign. He provided the “Gazette” with a copy of a cease-and-desist letter sent by his attorney to Chamberlin, Chamberlin’s campaign consultant Brent Doster of Front Line Strategies, Inc., and a political action committee Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics. The letter addresses “libelous and defamatory statements” contained in mailers, one of which was the implication that Juarez’s acceptance of PPP funds and loan forgiveness “scammed taxpayers.”

Pyles and Stone similarly pointed to Chamberlin, and his supporters, as the source of the attacks. Both said Chamberlin is intentionally confusing voters about the details of the COVID-19 relief funds and how they helped businesses during tough times. Both pointed out that Chamberlin does not have employees and may need to be educated on the crises and responsibilities employers faced during the pandemic crisis.

Chamberlin denied being involved with the mailers or accusing Juarez of wrongdoing. Instead, he pointed to a “clean campaign pledge” that he put out to the other candidates at the start of the campaign. The other candidates have called the pledge disingenuous since Chamberlin’s campaign manager has been associated with several PACs sending out attack mailers since the start.

The “Gazette” asked Chamberlin if his campaign manager was sending the PAC mailers out without consulting with Chamberlin on the strategy. Chamberlin did not answer the question.

Stone, Pyles, Juarez, Chamberlain and Justin Albright will compete in the March 7 special primary election scheduled for March 7. Robert “Foxy” Fox, a Republican who filed as a write-in candidate, effectively closing the election to Republican voters only, will face the primary winner in the May 16 general election. The general election will be open to all registered voters in the district, who must choose either the winner of the primary or write Fox’s name on their ballot.

The history of PPP and other pandemic relief for businesses

At the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, Congress passed a $900 billion coronavirus relief package meant to help offset the severe economic consequences businesses experienced as a result of COVID-19.

In 2021, the Gazette reported that over 3,000 people and businesses headquartered in Ocala received an estimated $232.7 million in funds under the PPP during 2020 when President Donald Trump provided another $284 billion to the program.

Under both PPP programs, businesses were to use the funds for only (a) payroll costs, (b) qualifying mortgage interest or rent obligations, (c) covered utility costs, (d) covered operations costs, (e) covered property damage, (f) covered supplier costs, and (g) covered worker protection expenditures.

If the businesses proved they used the funds for the approved purpose, the loans were forgiven. If the businesses could not or chose not to prove they used the money for those purposes, they could choose to pay the money back under a low-interest promissory note.

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