A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Trump administration to disclose the exact loan amounts and identities of all businesses that received funds as part of the pandemic relief program, rejecting the U.S. Justice Department’s arguments for keeping that information hidden or unspecified.
In a 40-page opinion, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg shattered the secrecy around the loan program, broadly striking down the Trump administration’s reasoning for concealing the names of businesses that received loans of less than $150,000.
Boasberg, a 2011 appointee to the federal trial court in Washington, found that exceptions under public records law for confidential and private information did not apply to what he called a “colossal outlay of taxpayer funds.”
“In these circumstances, the weighty public interest in disclosure easily overcomes the far narrower privacy interest of borrowers who collectively received billions of taxpayer dollars in loans,” Boasberg wrote.
The judge noted that “the PPP loan application expressly notified potential borrowers—admittedly in a form disclaimer—that their names and loan amounts would be “automatically released” upon a FOIA request.”
Under pressure from news organizations and others, the Small Business Administration earlier this year released the identities of recipients of loans exceeding $150,000, but the agency did not specify the exact amounts they received, instead giving a range. Dozens of major U.S. law firms received millions of dollars in PPP relief, the data showed.
Boasberg’s ruling on Thursday required the agency to reveal the exact amounts those businesses received under the Paycheck Protection Program and a separate program created by the CARES Act, a more than $2 trillion stimulus package passed in March.
Several news organizations, including The Washington Post, represented by lawyers from Ballard Spahr, requested identities of loan recipients and exact amounts under the Freedom of Information Act between April and May. In the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Justice Department defended the Trump administration’s refusal to release all of that information, saying the release of names and addresses of the “smallest of small businesses” would overly infringe on their privacy.
“Most obviously—and most centrally—everyone would know that these individuals have (or at least recently had) money in the bank. Any landlord, for example, whose tenant received a PPP or EIDL loan would know that the tenant either had the money to pay the rent or else had paid some other creditor instead of the landlord,” Justice Department lawyers wrote.
The SBA had also received records requests from landlords “seeking to know whether their tenants received PPP funds,” the lawyers said.
In his consideration of the case, Boasberg said he balanced the interest in public disclosure against the administration’s stated goal of protecting the confidential commercial information and privacy of loan recipients. The judge, noting that only one valid exemption was needed to withhold the loan information, said that the SBA must have believed that the privacy argument would be its “lucky ticket” if financial confidentiality claims failed.
“Because the scales tip decidedly in favor of disclosure, the Court holds that SBA’s invocation of Exemption 6 is no more successful than its assertion of Exemption 4,” he wrote, referring to the privacy and confidential exemptions,” Boasberg wrote.
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