Live

Watch CBSN Live

Phunware, a data firm for Trump campaign, got millions in coronavirus small business help

Controversy over pandemic stimulus allocation

A digital technology company that specializes in the mass collection of smartphone location data and is working for President Donald Trump's re-election campaign received millions from the federal coronavirus relief fund for small businesses. 

The company, Phunware, which now has about 60 employees, was eligible for the low-interest loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which is aimed at businesses with less than 500 workers. There is no allegation of illegality associated with its loan.

But the size of the loan — $2.85 million — is nearly 14 times the current PPP average of $206,000. Meantime, hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses got nothing, because the nearly $350 billion loan program ran out of money in just two weeks. (Congress is allocating another $310 billion to the PPP loan fund this week.)

The speed of Phunware's loan is notable, too. The publicly traded Texas-based company named a high-profile former Wall Street executive as its corporate board chair on March 30, the day after the PPP program was passed by Congress as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. 

The executive is Blythe Masters, who until 2014 had spent most of her financial services career at JPMorgan Chase, the bank that made the PPP loan to Phunware. The company received its loan funds two days after applying.

"It was supposed to be first come, first serve," said Lou Rabon, the CEO of Cyber Defense Group, a security consultancy in New York that also applied for a PPP loan through JPMorgan Chase. 

Roban is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking class-action status against JPMorgan Chase that alleges the bank unfairly favored larger clients to boost its profits from originating loans for the federal program. "Data provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration reveals that  . . . Chase prioritized and front-loaded applications with higher loan amounts," according to the suit.

Funding stalled in Congress as Payment Protection Program runs dry

Rabon's company applied for a loan of less than $200,000 on April 6, the first day JPMorgan Chase began accepting applications. 

Phunware applied for its loan through JPMorgan Chase on April 8 and received the money on April 10, according to a statement at the time from its CEO and a financial filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Rabon is still waiting. "My opinion of Chase is not very high right now," he said.

Phunware CEO Alan Knitowski and Masters did not return requests for comment for this story. A spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase said it does not comment on individual borrowers. The bank declined to comment on the lawsuit or its merits.

A potential power in tracking location data

Phunware was paid nearly $3 million in revenue from the Trump re-election campaign last year, or roughly 15% of its nearly $20 million in total sales, according to a filing with the SEC. In 2018, 66% of its $31 million revenue at the time came from work for client Fox Networks. 

Phunware has not disclosed how much it expects to make from the Trump campaign this year. But the company has said in filings it is actively pursuing political work during the 2020 presidential election cycle.

Much of the company's business has revolved around developing apps for clients such as Fox and the NFL, and collecting data about users from those apps, according to Brittany Kaiser, the former business development director for Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that performed data analysis for the 2016 Trump campaign. 

Kaiser was named to Phunware's board of advisers in June 2019, but said she soon after decided not to join the firm because it agreed to serve Trump's 2020 re-election efforts.

"They have capabilities that Cambridge never had; Cambridge didn't really develop apps," Kaiser said. "Cambridge bought location data but they didn't collect it themselves." In a 2019 presentation to investors, Phunware said it has the ability to collect location data from more than 1 billion active mobile devices per month. 

A spokesperson for the Trump 2020 campaign did not reply to questions sent for this article.

On Sunday, Knitowski tweeted out a link to the Donald Trump for President app. 

"Together, let's Keep America Great. @phunware," Knitowski wrote in the tweet.

Phunware was founded in 2009 by Knitowski and Chief Technical Officer Luam Dang. The company has raised over $100 million since then and has posted millions in losses. In an April financial filing, Phunware stated the company has "a history of operating losses and negative operating cash flows and expects these trends to continue into the foreseeable future."

In late 2018, Phunware went public through a complex transaction involving a shell company controlled by two Greek shipping executives. At the time, Phunware said it was launching its own digital currency, the PhunCoin. 

Caught up in one of the waves of investor hype surrounding bitcoin and other digital currencies, shares of Phunware soared 2,100% in early 2019, to more than $300 from $14. When that wave broke, the company's stock crashed. Phunware's shares recently traded for just 64 cents each. The company says it has put PhunCoin on hold.

In the past month, however, Phunware has announced the launch of a national registry for ventilators and a product the company said would use geo-location data to help governments manage pandemic response programs and track cases. 

As of Thursday, Phunware's national ventilator registry is a single webpage allowing hospitals and others to input their ventilator information.

Success in small business loans 

JPMorgan Chase has said all the firms that got PPP loans through the bank were customers. But JPMorgan was not Phunware's first stop, CEO Knitowski told the hometown Austin Business Journal on April 16. The company initially asked Western Alliance's Bridge Bank for help but was informed the bank was not participating in the Paycheck Protection Program, Knitowski said. 

Western Alliance's website says it did offer loans from the program, and a company presentation says the bank approved roughly $1.5 billion in PPP loans to 2,600 applicants.

Masters, the former JPMorgan executive,  joined Phunware's board in late December. On March 30, the day after the CARES Act passed, Phunware announced her elevation to chair of its board of directors. The company has yet to disclose how much it is paying Masters for serving on its board, but filings show in late February it awarded her 125,523 shares in restricted stock units that vest over 13 months. The shares were worth nearly $160,000 at the time of the grant.

Small businesses struggle to get emergency funding

Masters was a star in the JPMorgan universe who led a team of bankers in the mid-1990s who pioneered credit default swaps, the derivative contracts that ultimately played a role in stoking the housing bubble that led to the 2008 financial crisis. She rose to head JPMorgan's highly profitable commodities division, and was seen as a possible successor to CEO Jamie Dimon, but left the bank in 2014. 

After JPMorgan, Masters was the CEO of Digital Assets Holdings, a blockchain technology developer. She left that company in late 2018.

A spokesperson for JPMorgan declined to answer if Masters had any role in helping Phunware navigate JPMorgan's PPP loan process. Messages left for Masters at Motive Partners, the private equity firm she joined in December, were not returned.

The math behind the money

Phunware said in an April 13 press release touting its $2.85 million in small businesses aid that "PPP loan proceeds will primarily be used for payroll costs and to retain workers." 

The Payroll Protection Program provides loans to cover eight weeks of worker pay. Phunware had 93 employees as of the end of last year, according to SEC filings. But its payroll expenses have recently shrunk: It furloughed 37 employees in the first quarter, according to a March 30 filing with the SEC.

In order for Phunware to have its entire loan plus 1% interest forgiven by the government, it would have to rehire all furloughed workers who had been employed as of mid-February and pay them for eight weeks, according to the rules of the Paycheck Protection Program. 

Phunware did not respond to a question from CBS News as to whether it has rehired any furloughed workers since receiving its loan proceeds.

In the April 16 interview with the Austin Business Journal, Knitowski declined to say how the PPP funds would be used. "We're more focused to get through the unknown," he told the publication, and the $2.8 million loan "enables us to navigate these uncertain times."

Nearly 1.7 million small businesses got a piece of the $350 billion PPP pie before the money was spent. But sizable companies with access to public markets and investors also managed to get loans. 

As of Wednesday, 151 publicly traded companies, including the owners of the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain and the Pollo Tropical restaurant chain as well as Phunware, had disclosed they had received nearly $540 million in PPP loans, according to an analysis of SEC data by CBS News. (On Thursday, the owner of Ruth's Chris said it would return the money it got from its PPP loan.) About 20% of the total loan money was extended by JPMorgan Chase, the country's largest bank by assets.

NPR reported Tuesday that another company with ties to the White House received a large PPP loan. Continental Materials Corp., which manufactures heating and cooling equipment, received a $5.5 million loan, according to public filings. The company is majority-owned by the family of U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Ronald Gidwitz, who was the campaign finance chair for Mr. Trump's 2016 presidential campaign in Illinois.

President Trump was asked Monday during a White House press briefing about large companies receiving Paycheck Protection Program loans. He indicated his administration may ask some recipients to return the funds.

"If somebody got something that we think is inappropriate we'll get it back," Mr. Trump said.

Additional reporting by CBS News' Megan Towey.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue