The Small Business Administration says it’s had a big response to its Paycheck Protection Program and many small businesses are already receiving the funds to pay their employees or their rent. But a Watertown business owner, who was counting on the funds to keep her employees on, was denied. Even though Optometrist Melanie Weiss no longer has a criminal record, her past has come back to haunt her.

“I did a lot of bad things when I was using,” Melanie Weiss said in an Avoid Opioid public service announcement.

Watertown eye doctor Melanie Weiss’ very public battle with opioid addiction ended with her arrest and loss of her license. She worked hard in recovery, and in 2018 her felony was removed from her record and she was allowed to once again see patients. After surviving the ordeal, she now hoped the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program would help her business survive the pandemic.

“I was denied, because of my background. It kind of was a stab in the heart. Wow I put my life back together and now this is being taken away from me too,” Weiss said.

Question #6 on the application asks if the applicant has pleaded guilty to a felony in the last five years or placed on probation.

“Of course I had to answer ‘yes’ to that question, even though I was given a suspended imposition,” Weiss said.

“I can’t comment on any individual application. But what I can comment on is that this legislation is in place and it does have parameters and some of those parameters include that five-year rule for anyone that has a felony—that they’re not eligible for the program,” Jaime Wood of the Small Business Administration said.

Kennecke: What would that loan have meant to you and your employees?
Weiss: A lot. You know, just getting back into practice and building my business back up and building my employee base back up to where it was before my arrest and before all the events took place. It would just give me this sense of relief that I can get through this.

Weiss believes she’s not alone in being denied, because many people with criminal records end up starting their own business.

“And their business succeeds and they start employing people. They’re doing great and being very productive members of society,” Weiss said.

Weiss has been approved for a loan through the Watertown Works program and she’s applied for a loan through the governor’s office as well. But she said the amount she can borrow isn’t as much as with the SBA’s program.

Weiss has also contacted members of the South Dakota Congressional delegation to ask if the wording on the loan application question could be changed, to allow those with suspended impositions to qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program. KELOLAND Investigates has reached out to their offices as well and you can read their statements to us below:

“While Sen. Thune recognizes this program isn’t perfect, the Paycheck Protection Program is designed to provide emergency financial assistance to as many South Dakota small businesses and workers as possible who have been affected by the coronavirus crisis. The Small Business Administration used existing rules that govern its 7(a) Loan Program and applied those same guidelines to the Paycheck Protection Program, which is why certain individuals with a criminal history are ineligible, not because of legislation passed by Congress. Sen. Thune’s staff will be reaching out to Ms. Weiss to learn more about her situation and see if there is any way we can help.”

Katie Lingle, Press Secretary for Sen. John Thune

“The Paycheck Protection Program isn’t perfect, but it’s done a lot of good. Existing SBA regulations may cause application issues for individuals with a criminal history. With new guidance coming out almost daily, my office will be in touch with Ms. Weiss to see what help is available.”

Congressman Dusty Johnson

“The Paycheck Protection Program, created by the CARES Act, is an enormous new program that has been implemented in a short amount of time. We are working every day to find answers for South Dakotans about how the PPP can help their business.  It may be reasonable for SBA to consider applications on a case by case basis for those with felony convictions, with support from their sponsoring local lender.”

Katie Douglas, Press Secretary for Sen. Mike Rounds