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Nikki Fried Urges Florida Democratic Party To Return PPP Money, Citing 'Ethical Concerns'

Nikki Fried speaking at a podium
Florida Department of Agriculture And Consumer Services
"Returning the funds was absolutely the right decision to be made," Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said.

After elected members of the Florida Democratic Party expressed “ethical concerns” about political organizations taking federal money meant to help small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, party officials are returning loan funds to Washington.

“Returning the funds was absolutely the right decision to be made,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a video conference call Thursday morning, hours after the decision was announced.

“You saw a lot of our big corporations get significant amounts of money, and a lot of our small businesses didn't get the funding, were underfunded,” Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, continued. “(I) really would have wished that there would have been more responsiveness at the front end to help so many of these small businesses and put more parameters in place.”

The state party sought and received the interest-free loan, which was listed as exceeding $350,000, shortly after Congress approved the Paycheck Protection Program in April. Party officials said they applied because of concerns about meeting payroll and keeping people employed.

After the list of loan recipients became public this week, several Democratic lawmakers criticized the party for taking money that was meant to help small businesses and nonprofit organizations during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade County attorney, said political organizations that sought and accepted so-called PPP money should promptly return it, citing “legal and ethical concerns.”

Pizzo suggested the decision by the party opens it up to “partisan slights which only serve to impugn the integrity of one’s party.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, agreed with Pizzo and said: “PPP was created for small businesses and nonprofits desperate for support during COVID-19, not for political organizations.”

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, added, “As a proud small business owner, I am appalled that anyone thought this was in any way morally or ethically correct let alone politically astute!”

After the criticism, the party issued a statement saying it would give up the money.

“The bank, the loan processor and agents of the Small Business Association approved the funding,” party spokeswoman Luisana Perez Fernandez said in the statement. “It now seems they made a mistake in approving the funding so we are volunteering to return it.”

The party’s loan was revealed in a long-awaited data dump Monday from the Small Business Administration, with the information showing how politically connected companies and nonprofit organizations benefited from the program. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was an architect of the PPP loan program.

The list of recipients also included a number of businesses tied to Republican state lawmakers.

The accounting firm Robinson Gruters & Roberts, where Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters works, and Panama City Rep Jay Trumbull’s business, Trumbull Water Solutions, each received at least $150,000 in interest-free loans. Gruters doubles as a senator from Sarasota County.

Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson’s asbestos removal company, Simpson Environmental Services, received between $350,000 and $1 million in small-business loans, according to the data.

Caregivers Inc., a senior home-care company run by the family of Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, got at least $350,000, the information shows. Gaetz, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, listed the company on his congressional financial-disclosure form.