Paycheck Protection Program Fraud: How Whistleblowers Can Combat Fraud and Obtain Substantial Rewards Using the False Claims Act

By: Court Anderson , Benjamin (Ben) Hamborg , Eric Friske | June 19, 2023

Covid 19 Fraud

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), established under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, served as a vital lifeline for countless small businesses, individuals, and nonprofit organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a staggering $813.7 billion allocated to the program, it offered essential financial assistance to those impacted by the global crisis. However, the immense scale of the program and its rapid implementation resulted in an unprecedented level of fraud: over 70,000 loans, amounting to more than $4.6 billion, have already been identified as potentially fraudulent.

This article aims to educate potential whistleblowers about PPP fraud, highlight the critical part they can play in bringing these fraudsters to justice, and explain how their whistleblowing efforts could lead to a significant financial reward from the government.

What is the Paycheck Protection Program?

The PPP is a financial relief initiative created under the CARES Act, designed to help small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and individuals affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program provides forgivable loans to eligible recipients, allowing them to cover payroll costs, rent, mortgage interest, and utilities during the crisis. PPP loans were forgiven if recipients could meet certain criteria, such as using a specific percentage of the loan for payroll expenses and retaining or rehiring employees.

Unfortunately, the rapid implementation and vast scale of the PPP made it a prime target for fraudsters. Unscrupulous individuals and organizations exploited the program, submitting false or misleading information to obtain loans they were not entitled to or misusing the funds for unauthorized purposes. This fraudulent activity has led to an increased need for whistleblowers who can help detect and report that misconduct, holding wrongdoers accountable.

The False Claims Act and the Role of Whistleblowers in Combating PPP Fraud

The False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-3733, is a federal law that imposes liability on those who knowingly submit or cause others to submit false claims to the government for payment. The FCA includes qui tam provisions that enable whistleblowers, also known as relators, to file lawsuits on behalf of the government when they uncover fraud against the government.

By taking legal action under the FCA, whistleblowers not only help bring fraudsters to justice, but they can also receive a percentage of the recovery obtained by the government as compensation for their efforts—as much as 15 to 30% of the total recovery.  Often, this can mean a whistleblower reward of millions of dollars.

Who can be a whistleblower under the False Claims Act?

Whistleblowers are individuals who expose fraud, misconduct, or illegal activities within an organization, often at personal risk. Anyone can be a whistleblower. Potential whistleblowers are simply individuals with knowledge of the fraud that can help bring it to light. That said, certain types of employees might be more likely to witness PPP fraud within their organizations. These employees may include:

  1. Accounting and finance staff: Employees responsible for maintaining financial records, preparing payroll, and submitting tax documentation might come across discrepancies, inflated numbers, or false information related to PPP loans.
  2. Human resources personnel: HR employees who manage employee records and payroll information may notice inconsistencies or misrepresentations in the data provided for PPP loan applications.
  3. Managers and executives: Higher-level employees within an organization may be aware of decisions made to commit fraud or might discover fraudulent activities during the course of their managerial duties.
  4. Bank or financial institution employees: Staff members involved in processing PPP loan applications, such as loan officers or underwriters, could identify red flags like suspicious activity, identity theft, or inconsistencies in loan applications that were nevertheless processed.
  5. Compliance and risk management staff: Employees responsible for ensuring regulatory compliance and managing risk within their organization may come across evidence of PPP fraud during audits, reviews, or other compliance activities.

Types of PPP Fraud that Whistleblowers May Encounter

Whistleblowers play a crucial role in identifying and reporting fraud, especially in large-scale programs like PPP. By being vigilant and aware of the various types of PPP fraud, potential whistleblowers can help protect government resources and ensure that funds were used for their intended purpose.  Some of the most common types of PPP fraud that whistleblowers may encounter include the following:

  1. False information on loan documents: One form of PPP fraud involves providing false information on loan applications or requests for forgiveness. This could involve misrepresenting the number of employees, the nature of the business, or other key information to qualify for a loan or receive loan forgiveness. Whistleblowers should be on the lookout for discrepancies or inconsistencies in loan documents and application materials.
  2. Inflation of payroll: Another form of PPP fraud involves inflating payroll expenses to secure a larger loan amount. Fraudsters may manipulate payroll records or create fictitious employees to increase the size of their loan. Whistleblowers working in finance or human resources may be particularly well-positioned to identify this type of fraud.
  3. Falsified tax documentation: In some cases, fraudsters may submit fake tax documents to support fraudulent loan applications. This could involve creating false tax returns, W-2 forms, or other documents to mislead lenders and the government. Whistleblowers should be aware of any irregularities in tax documents that might suggest fraudulent activity.
  4. Identity theft: Wrongdoers may use stolen or fake identities to apply for PPP loans, taking advantage of the program’s funds for their own benefit. Whistleblowers should be vigilant for any instances of identity theft within their organizations or industries and report suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities.
  5. Misuse of proceeds: PPP loan recipients are required to use the funds for specific purposes, such as payroll costs, mortgage interest, rent, and utilities. However, some recipients may misuse the funds for unauthorized purposes, such as personal expenses or investing in non-eligible businesses. Whistleblowers should pay close attention to whether loan proceeds are being used for their intended purpose.

Legal Protections and Recovery to Whistleblowers for Reporting PPP fraud under the FCA

Whistleblowers who report PPP fraud under the FCA may be entitled to significant legal protections, including:

  1. Confidentiality: Whistleblowers’ identities can be kept confidential during the investigation, and in certain cases, even after the conclusion of the case.
  2. Employment protections: The FCA prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers, including termination, demotion, harassment, or discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.
  3. Financial rewards: Whistleblowers may be eligible to receive a portion of the government’s recovery in a successful FCA case, often ranging between 15% and 30% of the total amount recovered, which can sometimes be millions of dollars.

How Our Law Firm Can Help Whistleblowers

If you have information about PPP fraud, our experienced legal team can provide you with the guidance and representation you need to navigate the complex process of reporting fraud under the FCA. We will:

  1. Evaluate your case: Our attorneys will carefully review your information and assess the strength of your potential FCA claim.
  2. Protect your rights: We will ensure that you understand your legal rights and protections as a whistleblower and take steps to safeguard your interests throughout the process.
  3. Advocate on your behalf: Our attorneys will represent you in all aspects of the FCA case, from filing the initial complaint to negotiating settlements or litigating in court, if necessary.
  4. Maximize your reward: We will work diligently to secure the largest possible financial reward for your efforts in uncovering PPP fraud and assisting the government in recovering misused funds.

At Henson Efron, our litigation attorneys have garnered extensive experience in whistleblower claims litigation and have an esteemed record of obtaining favorable results on behalf of our clients. The litigation team works with our clients to explore their options and potential strategies, leveraging their years of experience working with the SEC and providing further information to the relevant entities when requested. In 2020, the efforts of litigation attorneys Court J. Anderson and Benjamin J. Hamborg culminated in a whistleblower award of more than $7 million for two of Henson Efron’s clients, which represents one of the largest SEC whistleblower awards in the history of Minnesota.

Court Anderson
With diverse and extensive courtroom experience, I know how to sell a case. I relentlessly and aggressively work to convince judges and juries that your position is equitable and right. I guarantee that I will care for your case as if it were my own. I have handled well over 500 depositions and litigated cases in federal and state courts throughout the United States regarding:...
Benjamin (Ben) Hamborg
I begin with the end in mind when gathering evidence and investigating facts. Extracting the critical information, I craft it into a convincing story, whether it’s for a demand letter, a motion for summary judgment, or a trial. I advise and resolve complex legal and business disputes for both plaintiffs and defendants, on issues regarding: business torts construction defects breaches of contract intellectual property issues...
Eric Friske
I represent individuals and businesses in a wide range of complex business, estate, and trust litigation matters.  At each stage along the way, I work closely with my clients to develop a successful strategy for their case, focusing on what is most important to them and their goals. In my litigation practice, I have a proven track record of advocating for my clients in the...