Oregon Democratic senator Ron Wyden warned early in the pandemic that wealthy business owners could abuse the Paycheck Protection Program. Financial disclosures suggest his wife did just that.
Nancy Bass Wyden, the multimillionaire owner of New York's Strand bookstore, received $2.7 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans between 2020 and 2021 and nonetheless went on to lay off 180 employees. Small businesses were eligible for the federally forgiven loans on the condition that they used a majority of the funds to keep employees on the payroll. In October 2020, Bass Wyden told CBS News that the Strand would not rehire many of those employees and that the store would "have to give back part of the loan due to the forgiveness rules."
But as of September of last year, the federal government had forgiven both loans, ProPublica reported. The Small Business Administration declined to comment and the Strand did not respond to the Washington Free Beacon's requests for comments on the loans.
The Paycheck Protection Program came under fire in 2020 for shelling out millions to billionaire real estate investors. Other family members of Democrats also got in line for handouts, including the multimillionaire father of then-Senate candidate Jon Ossoff (D.) who scored as much as $1 million from the program. Businesses like the Strand were able to line their pockets and lay off dozens of workers without rehiring them as long as 60 percent of the money went to payroll expenses.
Wyden and a group of senators pushed then-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Small Business Administrator Jovita Carranza in April 2020 "to develop strong supervisory mechanisms to identify instances of unjust enrichment" for the program.
"Every loan that provides a windfall for an applicant who does not truly need it results in one fewer loan made to a struggling small business owner whose employees could be truly helped by this funding," the senators wrote in a letter.
Wyden’s wife refused to rehire many of the employees she fired even after the Strand received its PPP loans, leaving the bookstore "woefully understaffed," according to the union that represents the workers. She pleaded with the public to purchase more books in late 2020, saying the store’s revenue had plummeted 70 percent and that loans and cash reserves were "depleted." The Strand said it was "impossible" to rehire all staff even with the paycheck loan boost.
"The limited sales we make now plus the PPP loan are the only things keeping our staff paid," a Strand spokesman told Vulture in March 2021. "So until in-store sales bounce back, this is the best we can do."
Bass Wyden earned as much as $3 million in book sales during the layoffs, according to her husband’s annual financial disclosures. The Oregonian reported in 2011 the couple’s net worth is between $12 million and $56 million.
The couple purchased millions of dollars' worth of stock in 2020 that appreciated substantially following lockdowns, including as much as $600,000 in shares of Amazon, a prime competitor with independent bookstores.
An inspector general’s report in May found many Americans took advantage of the PPP loans as the Small Business Administration had no plan to counter fraud. One former U.S. attorney dubbed the program "the biggest fraud in a generation."
Bass Wyden inherited the Strand from her father Ben Bass. Her children are next in line to take control of the 90-year-old bookstore next, according to the Strand's website.