State audit says 45 pandemic grants went to ineligible businesses, a small fraction of overall assistance

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue did not follow written eligibility requirements when it awarded 45 grants to small businesses using federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, according to a new report.

The non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau released a limited-scope review of the "We’re All In" and "Wisconsin Tomorrow" programs that were created to help businesses that experienced economic hardship during the pandemic.

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue awarded $595.9 million in grants to small businesses, restaurants, and lodging establishments through the two programs.

The audit bureau reviewed 172 program grants totaling $4.1 million and found the Department of Revenue did not follow its written eligibility requirements when it awarded 45 grants totaling $475,000.

In a response to the report, Secretary of Revenue Peter Barca said the review of 172 programs represents just 0.2% of the grants issued by the department.

Barca also said the report does not fully describe the massive amount of fraud attempts the Department of Revenue had to deal with.

"As your report points out, 41,341 applications were weeded out and denied as suspicious, which included 28,605 that were identified as fraudulent," Barca said. "DOR's fraud specialists stopped $143 million in fraudulent applications."

More:Wisconsin spent more of its pandemic relief money on business support than any other state

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee asked for the report in February 2022 to evaluate the state's administration of supplemental federal funding received in response to the pandemic.

State Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, said overall, the Department of Revenue did a "fine job" administering the money and he appreciates the steps the department is taking to remedy any errors. “As a result of the forced lockdowns, all of our small businesses across our state were affected and it became necessary for us to assist them," Macco said.

Senator Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said he believes efforts are underway to "identify inappropriate and fraudulent activity targeting these grants."

"I believe that this effort is going to be a very important element to not only ensure the proper administration of the We’re All In and Wisconsin Tomorrow Grants, but also to potentially kickstart other state agencies to identify and report fraudulent actively in programs they’ve administered with federal COVID relief funds,” Cowles said.

In a statement, Macco and Cowles point out the Bureau's review was not based on a statistically validsample of grants, so it's not appropriate to extrapolate the results of the review to all grants that the Department of Revenue has awarded.

The Legislative Audit Bureau recommends the Department of Revenue identify and recover Wisconsin Tomorrow grants it awarded in error and report to the joint Legislative Audit Committee by Feb. 15 on the status of its efforts.

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Audit finds 45 ARPA and CARES Act grants went to ineligible businesses