SCOTTSDALE, AZ — A Valley company, which helped gig workers and mom-and-pops get the federal loans to stay in business during the pandemic, is now at the center of a Congressional probe into whether the loans were made to fraudulent or ineligible applicants.
Blueacorn was founded in Scottsdale and helped process more than $12 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans, according to the company.
Now the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is asking company executives about how much they made and what they did to try to prevent the possible waste, fraud, and abuse of tax dollars.
Blueacorn’s advertisements flooded social media earlier this year.
“Most self-employed and 1099 contractors had no idea they could actually qualify for a 100 percent forgivable PPP loan,” one ad said.
The Fin Tech company posted a YouTube video showing how people can complete an online questionnaire and how their app wizard would autofill the PPP loan application. PPP loans were designed to assist small businesses to remain open during the pandemic.
Blueacorn sent the paperwork through one of two partners, Prestamos CDFI or Capital Plus Financial, which are lenders approved to work with the federal Small Business Administration.
Blueacorn helped to process loans for approximately 820,000 small business owners, resulting in $12.65 billion in PPP loans, according to a company spokesperson this week.
By one estimate, Blueacorn received a billion dollars in fees for processing PPP loans. The figure was cited in the letter sent by the congressional subcommittee to the company last month, but Blueacorn officials would not confirm that estimate.
Subcommittee Chairman Jim Clybourn sent the November 22 letter to Blueacorn demanding documents and answers on several topics, including
- How the company’s automated systems detected fraud or money laundering
- How many applications were escalated for human review as well as how many were rejected in this process
- How many employees were dedicated to fraud compliance and what was their budget
- Blueacorn’s total revenue from PPP loans
- Total compensation for the executive team
Rep. Clybourn gave Blueacorn until December 6 to submit answers and paperwork. While neither the subcommittee nor the company would confirm whether any documents or answers have been submitted to date, a Blueacorn spokesperson said the company is cooperating with the congressional inquiry.
Clybourn sent the letter to Blueacorn after University of Texas professors released a paper titled, “Did FinTech lenders facilitate PPP Fraud?”
The UT team analyzed SBA data, flagging approximately 30 percent of PPP loans through Blueacorn lenders to be suspicious, using several indicators of fraud. Blueacorn disputes the UT report’s methodology.
The ABC15 investigators called and messaged local founders of Blueacorn, including former ABC15 anchor Stephanie Hockridge Reis and her entrepreneur husband Nate Reis.
When reached by phone, Hockridge refused to discuss the company. Hockridge worked for ABC15 from 2011 to 2018. In a Facebook post, Hockridge wrote she co-founded Blueacorn in 2020.
A company spokesperson said Hockridge and Reis no longer have an active role of responsibility in the company. Blueacorn declined to name who currently has a financial stake in the company.
Current CEO Barry Calhoun was hired in March during the height of application frenzy.
A company spokesperson issued this statement about the subcommittee’s probe:
Blueacorn was founded in April 2020 with the goal to simplify and automate the PPP loan application process for the workers who were being overlooked by our traditional banking system. We are tremendously proud to have been able to help approximately 800,000 business owners apply for and secure the funds they needed to survive the pandemic. We are also incredibly proud of the work we have undertaken to dramatically reduce fraud in the PPP program. As we reviewed increasing volumes of loan applications, we learned, adapted, and enhanced our fraud detection capabilities and protocols. Along the way, we partnered with the SBA and other authorities to ensure the integrity of the PPP while providing a traditionally overlooked population with access to the funds they needed and deserved.
ABC15 also reached out to the two lenders that Blueacorn worked with on PPP loans.
Capital Plus Financial issued a statement in response to ABC15’s questions:
Capital Plus Financial and Blue Acorn aligned on the mission to serve the underserved. We are appreciative of the work Blue Acorn did for the CDFI industry, and value what we did together to withdraw an unprecedented number of fraudulent loans, and did so with the intent of providing access to those who lawfully qualified and met all of the rigorous criteria in place to secure a PPP loan.
Prestamos CDFI, which is based in Phoenix, declined to comment.
The Small Business Administration, which administered PPP loans nationwide, told ABC15 in a statement:
The SBA takes fraud seriously, and, as such, all applicants are required to provide certification of their eligibility upon application. Misrepresentation of eligibility is unlawful, and, when appropriate, these cases are referred to the Office of the Inspector General. The Office of Inspector General and the agency’s federal partners are working diligently to resolve fraud incidents. The SBA encourages anyone suspecting fraud or misuse of relief programs to visit: sba.gov/fraud.
The SBA confirms that Blueacorn was not a lender and did not receive any fees directly from the agency.