Tampa Bay farmers waiting for federal loan irked after millions given to phony farms

Pasco County

PASCO CO. Fla. (WFLA) – Cannapalooza Farms was about a year old but blooming until the pandemic broke the nation’s shipping and distribution chain, cutting off what the Pasco County hemp farm needed to survive.

Owners Marlon Santiago and Rudy Fiordilino turned to the Small Business Administration (SBA) multi-billion dollar Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program and thought their $18,000 request was approved.

“We were ecstatic,” Santiago said. “We were approved.”

Or so they thought.

The glitches have been somewhat countless, gummed up by SBA typos, lost paperwork and slow response time, according to Santiago.

One example is the repeated request for a form that allows the SBA to ask the IRS about tax filings.

“They have asked for the 4506-T form from me at least half a dozen times, which I have provided to them,” Santiago said.

Getting someone on the phone to explain the delays has happened from time to time, but with minimal impact.

“People we’ve talked to either can’t help us or don’t know what we’re talking about,” Fiordilino said.

“I have literally begged and pleaded with the SBA,” Santiago said. “Please have someone help me.”

In a recent email to Cannapalooza, the SBA apoligized for “technical issues” that are impacting and delaying loans.

But time is running out.

“I’ve been trying to get this done for almost six months,” Santiago said. “We are at our wits end here.”

Santiago does not suspect what Cannapalooza grows is delaying the process since hemp is legal under federal law, unlike its cannabis-cousins that have much higher levels of THC, the ingredient that makes consumers high.

While this legitimate farm has struggled to secure business saving cash from an EIDL, one of the fraud schemes that sucked millions out of the program involves phony farms.

In February, 8 On Your Side extracted all the Florida EIDLs from a massive SBA spreadsheet of more than three million loans worth $194 billion handed out since last spring across the country.

After pulling the Tampa-based transactions from the state’s list, a second look uncovered dozens of loans to farms.

Phone calls and knocks on doors, alerted dozens of bay area residents who had no idea their names and addresses were used on bogus farms to illegally obtain taxpayer money.

That local total is a blip in the alleged fraud nationally, according to an SBA Office of Inspector General report that expressed concerns about $79 billion in loans.

Hearing that number is especially galling for Fiordilino when he compares it to the mere $18,000 EIDL his farm applied for late last year.

“We’re hearing about these fake contractors, fake farms getting loans and we’re not,” Fiordilino said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Santiago remains hopeful the loan will come through before June 13 when a shipment of 300 hemp plants is scheduled to be sent north.

“Right now, we can’t afford it,” Santiago said. “It’s so frustrating because we’re actually legit. As you can see here, we’re a legit CBD farm, just trying to grow.”

He said the loan would reinvigorate expansion plans to plant in a two-acre lot behind their building by providing funds to buy fencing and greenhouse material.

Eight On Your Side forwarded Cannapalooza’s loan and contact information to the SBA and Congressman Gus Bilirakis’s office. Santiago said a Bilirakis staff member contacted him Wednesday.

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