As Florida’s highest ranking elected Democrat official, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has established a reputation for being outspoken on a wide range of political matters. But now that Florida Democrats are facing intense pressure over a potentially illegal $780,000 taxpayer funded loan, Fried is keeping her mouth shut.
Other Democrats, though, are demanding answers. State Senator Jason Pizzo, who is increasingly looking like Fried’s toughest potential competitor for a bigger role in the near future, may see an unfolding political opportunity in Fried’s reluctance to lead:
.@FlaDems – let’s get these questions answered ASAP. The sooner we have clarity, the sooner the our candidates can get back to winning their races on the actual issues important (and relevant) to Floridians. @TerrieRizzo @JuanPenalosa https://t.co/9WVhNrWFc8
— Jason Pizzo (@senpizzo) September 17, 2020
In April, the Florida Democratic Party reported receipt of five structured payments from the federal government’s controversial Paycheck Protection Plan. The first of three $200,000 payments arrived in FDP’s bank account on April 24th. Over the next week, two more transfers arrived worth $200,000 each. Then came a transfer for $150,000, and finally, on April 29th, a transfer of $30,000 in cash. All of it taxpayer funds paid to Florida Democrats.
On July 6th, Politico Florida broke the scandal that the Florida Democratic Party had managed to secure the loan, even though political organizations are explicitly ineligible. As news of the controversy spread, pressure began to mount on the FDP to repay the loan, and the party ultimately relented on July 9th. Fried herself even spoke up about it, hours after the fact.
“Returning the funds was absolutely the right decision to be made,” she said in a video call later that same day.
But just how did the Florida Democratic Party manage to qualify for the funds in the first place, given the fact that SBA rules make it perfectly clear that political parties aren’t eligible? Florida Democrats initially blamed the Small Business Administration:
“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.”
But as it turns out, the Florida Democratic Party didn’t actually qualify for the loan at all. FDP actually used a corporation, the Florida Democratic Party Building Fund, Inc., as a front company in order to circumvent federal rules and secure the loan to help pay the salaries of its employees. And that’s the problem. The FDP Building Fund, Inc. doesn’t actually have any employees. Which means, in order to qualify for PPP, someone had to lie on the application and claim employees that don’t actually exist.
But just who lied, and what they lied about remain unanswered questions, and more voices are now demanding those answers.
“The Florida Democrat Party should absolutely release a copy of their loan application,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, speaking on behalf of the Florida Republican Party. “We don’t believe for one second that this was a mistake. The FDP knew what they were doing from the onset—but the one thing they never contemplated was that the data about who applied and received funds would be made public, shining a light on their actions. Like the rest of the public, we will be waiting for answers.” [Editor’s note: Ferré’s full statement, which includes in-depth commentary on the matter, appears at the bottom of this article.]
Other prominent Florida voices have repeatedly called for greater transparency. U.S. Senator Rick Scott wants the Small Business Administration to make application data more transparent.
A spokesman for Governor Ron DeSantis said he also supports “full transparency in the PPP loan process.”
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ top critic, Fried, declined to respond to questions on Thursday seeking to clarify her role in the decision to seek the funds in the first place. And while she has no official role at FDP, she, like Ron DeSantis on the Republican side, each hold significant influence over decisions made by their respective party leaders.
For now at least, Fried is choosing to exercise her right to remain silent.
Here’s the full statement from Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré:
“The Florida Democrat Party should absolutely release a copy of their loan application.
“Furthermore, the Republican Party of Florida believes they need to prove to the public that they returned all the funds. It is mind boggling that they thought they were even qualified in the first place – the PPP eligibility language is very clear –political organizations are not eligible for PPP loans. The program was intended to help private sector businesses save and protect jobs, keeping workers paid and employed.
“We don’t believe for one second that this was a mistake. The FDP knew what they were doing from the onset— but the one thing they never contemplated was that the data about who applied and received funds would be made public, shining a light on their actions.
“Like the rest of the public, we will be waiting for answers.”