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Here are the eyebrow-raising Paycheck Protection Program loans in Florida

Breaking down the politically connected who got money.

The following first appeared in the Buzz political newsletter, a weekly dive into the power, politics and influence shaping Florida from Political Editor Steve Contorno and the Tampa Bay Times politics team. To subscribe and receive it in your email inbox each week, click here.

This week, we got our first peek at the $521 billion the federal government gave to companies through the Paycheck Protection Program. There were some interesting recipients.

Back up for a second. What is this pot of cash? The Paycheck Protection Program is a piece of the stimulus package that Congress created and President Donald Trump signed to rescue the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. As businesses shuttered and workers were sent home, Congress offered companies loans to stay afloat. Lawmakers intended for the program to incentivize employers to keep people on staff with the hope that the economic pain from the pandemic would be temporary. If companies avoid layoffs, they don’t have to pay back the loan.

Hundreds of thousands of businesses took advantage of it and federal officials claim it saved 51 million jobs (though, there’s reason to doubt that). Here are some of the Tampa Bay area companies that received sizable assistance. Oh, and celebrities like Tim McGraw and Reese Witherspoon apparently got help, too.

In Florida, we saw several politically connected businesses and organizations taking advantage of the potentially free money. Here are a few that raised some eyebrows.

It’s a party. Are political parties a business? They do employ people. Apparently, that was a good enough reason for the Florida Democratic Party to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. And it was approved for $350,000 to $1 million.

Only one other state political party is listed as a recipient of one of these loans: the Ohio Democratic Party. So Florida Democrats were quite an outlier among their peer organizations. Even some Democrats were uncomfortable with the arrangement.

Overnight, Democrats decided to give the money back. Their spokeswoman Luisana Pérez Fernández said the bank and feds “made a mistake in approving the funding so we are volunteering to return it.”

Something something glass houses. State Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida had called on Democrats to return the money. His Sarasota accounting firm also took up to $350,000 through the federal program. Gruters said that is different because his loan helped a business, not a political party.

(We should also point out the Tampa Bay Times and its related companies received $8.5 million through the program. We explained the details of our loan when it was first approved. You can read about it here.)

Congressional benefits. Trump waived a rule that could have prevented lawmakers from seeking coronavirus relief for themselves. And some members of Congress seem to have taken advantage of it.

For example, three car dealerships owned by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan received up to $7 million in loans. Buchanan, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, is a partner in the business and his stake in the dealerships are worth upward of $125 million. You can read more about it here, including Buchanan’s response to our questions.

Meanwhile, one of Trump’s top supporters in Congress, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, stood to gain from the program, too. A senior home care company that Gaetz lists on his financial disclosures received up to $1 million, Politico reported.

And the Tampa law firm where U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s husband is a partner received between $5 million and $10 million. In a statement, Castor said she “was not involved in the firm’s application nor awarding of this loan.”

“In addition, I voted for H.R. 6782, the TRUTH Act, to require full transparency regarding who, where and how much was received by small businesses and nonprofits,” she said. “These are public funds and the public has a right to know who received taxpayer dollars.”

Small government for thee, but not for me. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, one of the primary backers of Republicans in Florida, received up to $350,000. So did the Florida TaxWatch Research Institute, an organization often critical of government spending.

Trump friendly. Quite a few businesses close to the president and his advisers received $$$. The Washington Post and ProPublica listed a few of them: a law firm run by one of Trump’s key defenders in the Russia probe, a Kushner family real estate project and a partner in a company partnering with the Trump Organization on a hotel and residential tower in Hawaii.

Here’s another: American Media, the publisher of the National Enquirer. The Boca Raton company has been accused of buying and killing stories that made Trump look bad, like his alleged affair with Playboy model Karen McDougal.

The U.S. Treasury has made this data accessible to the public. You can look through it yourself here. If you find something that you think is a story, email Political Editor Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com.

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