A small gas station in California received small business bailout money from the Trump administration during the pandemic, then paid for Make America Great Again campaign billboards ahead the election.
Large, towering billboards attempting to rally support for President Trump and his quest for a second term began showing up along a desert highway in early August.
Signs stamped with ‘Make America Great Again’ in capital letters or Trump looking wistfully at the sky with a thumbs up appeared along the California-Arizona border.
The small company that funded the sprawling billboards had months earlier received a significant cash loan from the same administration it is now championing, public records obtained by CNN showed.
Ethics and legal experts have said the move highlights the downfalls in the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Jones 1 Inc., a small company in California, received a PPP loan from the Trump administration in April and later erected pro-Trump billboards
Jones 1 Inc. was approved for a loan ranging between $150,000 and $350,000 on April 28 courtesy of the federal government’s PPP initiative, which was created to help small businesses pay staffers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four months later, the small company, which owns a Shell gas station and a travel center in Needles, California, would lease ‘six beautiful Trump billboards’ near the state’s border.
Six political billboards were estimated to cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 for four weeks depending on the location, Lamar Advertising told CNN.
Lamar Advertising, which leased the billboards to Jones 1 Inc., did not provide pricing for those specific billboards but the rate could skyrocket if they stay up through the election.
The billboards were placed along the California-Arizona border and championed President Trump ahead of the November election
Lake Havasu Republicans, a conservative group in Arizona that started the billboards, said they plan to do just that as costs could potentially range from $30,000 to $120,000, according to estimates.
Joseph Jones, the owner of the small company, argued that the PPP money he received was used for employee payroll, not the billboards.
Public records from the Small Business Administration showed that his application cited 32 employees.
Jones did not provide the exact amount of the billboards, but said he didn’t spend $120,000 on the project.
‘I simply wanted to support my president, that’s all there is to it,’ he said.
Even if Jones did not directly use the bailout loan money to finance the Make America Great Again billboards, experts said non-essential spending like that contradicts the ‘spirit’ of the program.
Additionally, they said it shows a distinct failure in how the program was implemented and determination over which businesses actually needed additional funds.
The idea to lease billboard space began with the Lake Havasu Republicans Facebook group and Joseph Jones decided to make the vision a reality
The Small Business Administration and President Trump (pictured) were initially criticized for the PPP initiative after large companies, like Shake Shack, got millions in loans
According to Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), Jones 1 Inc. may not have truly needed the loan if they could afford to buy billboards as well.
‘If you have enough capital to spend it on billboards, maybe you shouldn’t have been one of the companies to receive this loan,’ she said.
‘The responsibility really rested with the SBA and the administration to make sure they were spending these taxpayer dollars in a way that Congress intended.’
Linda Ferrel, an Auburn University business ethics professor, told CNN that companies should have a ‘social responsibility’ to use loans to protect workers and customers.
But she agreed with Hempowicz that the federal government shoulders more responsibility than business owners, some of whom may have initially applied for a loan in good faith at the pandemic’s start but later ended up better than expected.
The idea for the billboards began with members of the Lake Havasu Republicans Facebook group, creator Gianna Kraft said.
Jones, she said, was the member who volunteered to make the vision a reality.
‘I’m getting daily pictures, people taking selfies showing their support, people driving by and saying they’re awesome and what a great impact they are having,’ said Kraft.
‘Where are the Biden billboards?’ she said, adding that the Trump advertisements showed how much more support the Commander-in-Chief had than Joe Biden.
Liz Hempowicz: ‘If you have enough capital to spend it on billboards, maybe you shouldn’t have been one of the companies to receive this…