Last week, Congress voted to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a relief package meant to help small businesses keep paying employees through the coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately for small businesses, though, the PPP legislation was written in such a way that massive hotel and restaurant chains—publicly traded companies with millions of dollars in revenue—also qualified. After heated public outcry, companies like Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and Shake Shack were pressured into returning tens of millions of dollars to the rapidly deleted fund.
Dallas billionaire Monty Bennett had a special hand in draining the first round of PPP money—he's the single biggest recipient of PPP funds, with $96.1 million going to his businesses. Bennett is the the head of what The Dallas Morning News calls a "hotel empire." He's the CEO of Ashford Inc., a company that serves as the "external advisor" to Ashford Hospitality Trust and Braemar Hotels & Resorts, two companies where Bennett also serves as chairman of the board.
As Popular Information reports, the three companies made $2.2 billion in revenue in 2019. But in March, when U.S. businesses started to feel the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the companies laid off 95 percent of their employees and hired lobbyists for the first time ever to make sure that they could get bailout money. That same month, Bennett personally donated $50,000 to Donald Trump's re-election committee.
In a statement out Saturday, Ashford Inc. announced that, unlike other publicly traded, multimillion-dollar companies, it would not be returning any of the funds it received. "Media concerns over our receipt of PPP funds are misplaced," the statement reads. "The PPP program was specifically designed to help companies like ours as part of the national objective of shoring up businesses and getting people back to work. We to [sic] intend to use the PPP funds to do our part."
Under the terms of PPP, companies that receive funds have to pay back the money they receive within two years, unless they use 75 percent or more to keep employees on payroll. According to Popular Information, the corporations expect to have to pay back the loan at the end of the two-year grace period, which means Bennett's companies are not expecting to spend that money on workers. And while the $96.1 million will eventually go back to the government, for now that's a nearly nine-figure sum that struggling small businesses can't get access to.
Not all PPP applicants had the bounteous success that Bennett did, though. Last week, the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit group focused on abusive lending practices, warned that "based on how the program is structured, we estimate that upwards of 90 percent of businesses owned by people of color have been, or will likely be, shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program." Banks responsible for distributing the loans are reportedly prioritizing existing clients and larger loan applications, two criteria that make the process easier and more lucrative for the banks but effectively freeze out most minority- and women-owned businesses, which on average have 30 percent fewer employees and 50 to 90 percent as much revenue as white- and male-owned businesses, according to CBS News.
Bennett, who reportedly makes between $5.6 and $6.6 million per year, is also feeling the economic squeeze. According to Popular Information, as COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing in the U.S. in March, he paid himself only 75 percent of his yearly bonus, a total of $1,755,697—but with a guarantee that he'll receive the remaining $585,233 once the pandemic subsides or by December 31, 2020, whichever comes first.