Judge orders Trump administration to reveal PPP loan data it sought to obscure

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Small Business Administration to release details on coronavirus pandemic-related loans that would disclose information on businesses that benefited from $717 billion in federally backed borrowings.

The judge ordered the agency to disclose all the names, addresses and precise loan amounts issued through the Paycheck Protection Program and Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program. The decision comes after a lawsuit was filed by a dozen news organizations, charging that the agency was not fulfilling its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.

The SBA had previously released only summarized and anonymized data for PPP loans under $150,000 — which account for about 4.5 million of the 5.2 million in total loans made — claiming they would violate borrowers’ privacy by revealing the size of their payroll.

When the SBA denied the FOIA requests by news agencies, it argued that releasing government loan information would reveal business and personal information that should be kept private.

Federal Judge James Boasberg rejected those claims, saying in his ruling that, “the significant public interest in shedding light on SBA’s administration of the PPP and EIDL program dramatically outweighs any limited private interest in nondisclosure.” The judge discounted the SBA’s claim that the size of a loan would reveal a company’s payroll, calling the assertion “fundamentally flawed.”

He noted “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,” and criticized the agency for offering “a series of arguments that essentially all reduce to the unavailing contention that the agency did not mean what the loan-application forms actually said.”

The SBA had no comment, agency spokesperson Jim Billimoria said in an email to NBC News. The Justice Department, representing the agency in the lawsuit, did not reply to requests for comment and whether the Trump administration plans to appeal the ruling.

“In response to the unprecedented challenges faced by small businesses this year, the Trump administration provided more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars in financial assistance to support impacted small businesses,” SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza said in a recent release. “SBA lending data further reflects the extraordinary commitment this administration has made to supporting entrepreneurs in underserved communities.”

Nearly 30 percent of the PPP loans were made in low-and moderate-income communities and over 15 percent were approved for rural communities, according to the agency.

Government watchdog groups welcomed the release and pledged to begin scrutinizing the data once released.

“From the beginning, the Trump administration did everything in its power to hide the recipients of PPP loans,” Jeremey Funk, spokesman for Accountable.us, a progressive government watchdog group, told NBC News in an email. “As soon as the administration abides by the court order and releases all data, we will scour it to see whether more Trump administration officials and family members — and other well-connected folks — than previously known received the loans.”

The data was released following a FOIA request filed by 11 news organizations, including NBC News, The Washington Post and The New York Times, and was consolidated with a separate lawsuit filed by the Center for Public Integrity, a DC-based investigative journalism nonprofit.

News organizations had mined the limited data released in July to reveal loans given to those connected with the Trump administration and how Black-owned businesses appeared to have greater difficulty getting SBA aid.