Remember way back to the Before Times in February, when a big chunk—$150,000—of mysterious dark money showed up in a super PAC set up for Sen. Susan Collins? It was from the Society of Young Women Scientist and Engineers LLC based out of Hawaii, an entity that further investigation found doesn’t actually exist … and was created by the owners, officers, and family members of the owners and officers of Navatek, a defense contractor for which Collins has secured million of dollars in contracts. That story was sketchy enough, but it just got a lot thornier for Collins.
Martin Koa, the owner of Navatek and major donor to Collins, was arrested Wednesday and charged with bank fraud and money laundering. That part isn't great for Collins. This part is very, very bad: "According to a 37-page criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Kao is suspected of lying on two applications to receive funds under the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, part of the CARES Act passed by Congress in late March to address the pandemic. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was a co-author of the act." (Disclosure: Kos Media received a Paycheck Protection Program loan.) Kao is accused of overstating his company's need for the relief, lying about the number of his employees so he could qualify, and using a second company to apply for two loans. He is also suspected of transferring $2 million of taxpayer funded Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to his personal bank account. But there's more.
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He apparently also told the bank handling his application that he had connections with "multiple unnamed U.S. senators" to get the loans. He also allegedly told the bank "some senators or their staff had advised him on the application process." Gee, I wonder which senator and/or staff might have been in that group? Maybe the senator who wrote the PPP into existence? This looks so bad. In an email sent to a bank executive on April 7, he wrote that he had been in telephone contact with a U.S. senator and member of Congress who "were very adamant about stepping in, if our application was getting stalled."
Collins' spokesperson, Annie Clark, said in a statement Thursday: "Neither Senator Collins nor her office have had any contact with Mr. Kao or anyone else at Navatek regarding the Paycheck Protection Program." That's entirely possible. It could have been Sen. Brian Schatz from Hawaii, who has also received donations from Kao. He doesn't seem to have a Kao super PAC dedicated to his reelection, but Schatz's office might have been involved. There's no indication that any senator did anything underhanded to help secure these loans. But it smells. A lot.
Kenji Price, the U.S. attorney for the district of Hawaii, said in a press conference announcing the charges against Kao: "These investigations unfortunately reveal what experience teaches. When the federal government distributes money there is generally a fraudster out there who tries to get his or her hands on it illegally." That's particularly true when there's a Trump administration willing to overlook fraud, and a Congress that passes bill that doesn't have the necessary protections written in to stop it. Like the bill Collins wrote with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Is every member of Congress responsible for the lawbreaking that their big donors commit? No. But when the fraud costs American taxpayers millions of dollars—millions of dollars intended to keep small businesses afloat and to keep their employees on payroll—the very least a lawmaker should do is return all that campaign cash. Or donate it to any one of the nonprofits trying to keep struggling Americans from going hungry or becoming homeless during this pandemic.