Questions Raised After Fire District Gains PPP Loan

The Blue Hills Fire District was awarded a PPP loan, but two former commissioners say they weren’t even aware of the application and some are now questioning how the money was used.

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The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was designed to help keep small businesses afloat during the pandemic with low interest, forgivable loans, but there has been controversy in some cases over who the money was distributed to and how it was used. Now there’s anger and confusion about a PPP loan taken by a Connecticut fire department that NBC Connecticut has investigated before.

Eyebrows were raised in Bloomfield when two former fire commissioners, who left office last summer, brought up the issue at a Blue Hills Fire District meeting October 7. 

Former fire commissioners Mark Manson and Jacqueline Massey-Green said the $120,459 loan application, which the district applied for in April when they were both commissioners, was news to them. 

“You applied for the loan and I didn’t know nothing about it…I’m asking you, how are we eligible for a PPP loan when we weren’t in any type of distress?” Manson asked the current BHFD commissioners and staff at the October meeting.

“Manson and I did not approve that”, said Massey-Green.

Finance director Errol Bartley explained at the meeting that he decided to apply for the PPP loan due to concern tax collections in Bloomfield would be down due to the pandemic. 

“I was acting in the best interests of the fire district, because that is what a finance director should do,” Bartley said.

PPP rules dictate those who get loans self-certify they are eligible. It gets reviewed when businesses apply for forgiveness.

The third BHFD fire commissioner, Ariel Jaunai, who was on the fire commission both when the PPP loan was applied for and currently, has not said when she learned of the loan application, and has declined our requests for comment.

Blue Hills Fire District Commissioner Ariel Jaunai at an October 7, 2020 meeting

On August 13th, 2020, board minutes indicate Jaunai, the commission chair at the time, made a successful proposal to spend PPP money on an extra week’s pay for full time firefighters. 

Payroll records show that those getting an extra week’s pay included her husband, a lieutenant in the department.  

One of the two new commissioners, Sheray McDowell, voted for Jaunai’s motion.  The other new commissioner, Michelle Adams, was not at that meeting.

The U.S. Small Business Administration says PPP money can be used for bonus and incentive pay. But Jaunai and Tanya Farmer, another former fire commissioner she served with several years ago, argued at the October 7 meeting about whether giving an extra week’s pay from PPP funds was the right thing to do.

Tanya Farmer:   “The loan was intended to provide relief to small businesses and to make their payroll, and according to your minutes online, you used some of the money to give bonuses to your employees. 

Ariel Jaunai:       “Bonuses?”

Tanya  Farmer:  “Bonuses, that’s in your minutes, to your employees, including your husband.”

Ariel Jaunai:       “I don’t know what these bonuses are you guys are talking about.  We never gave out a bonus.  We give additional pay, payment, to the guys who were out (working) was in Covid.”

NBC Connecticut Investigates then requested a copy of the $120,459 PPP loan application. 

Finance director Bartley said at the October 7 meeting he didn’t keep one.  “I didn’t save the application, and that’s my bad.”

When NBC Connecticut obtained a copy of the PPP application weeks later, it was not filled out with the fire district’s legal name and tax ID number, an EIN (Employer Identification Number), but instead the name of a public charity connected to the fire district, and its tax ID number.

Bartley explained in documents obtained by NBC Connecticut Investigates that when he filled out the application electronically, it somehow auto filled the name of the charity and its ID number.

The organizations have similar names.

Bartley also declined an interview.

Blue Hills Fire District Commission Chair Ariel Jaunai was joined by two new commissioners this summer. From left to right, Michelle Adams, and Sheray McDowell, respectively.

The two new commissioners want a better snapshot how the PPP loan was obtained, what else it was spent on, and say they plan to hire a forensic auditor to probe further. 

“We’re in the process of interviewing auditors for that, because we have to give it to the experts of course to then go and find, tell us what you find,” Adams said.

McDowell, who took over as fire commission chair from Jaunai in November, added she and Adams have been “…frustrated that we’re in the dark…we don’t know enough as to what’s going on with that PPP loan.”

The Blue Hills PPP loan has been far from the only one under the microscope. The SBA Inspector General has been investigating the PPP program as a whole.

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