Thirteen Cody business owners either have returned or need to return more than $2 million in funds received through the Wyoming Business Council COVID-19 Relief Program.

The repayments come a result of independent auditing and a safe harbor program designed to allow businesses to return unneeded or undeserved funds.

Three of the top five were instructed to return funds after an audit, but Big Horn Cinemas owner Tony Beaverson voluntarily returned $160,000, 31.3% of the funds he received due to the losses incurred by COVID-19 and business restrictions.

Four of the top-10 funding recipients in Cody returned or have to return at least some funds.

Jeff Wagoner, owner of Mountain View Vacations and registered agent for SperaTaiga PBC, a business services company, was audited and has been ordered to pay back 99.3% of his received funds, a total of $468,902.

Although the Business Council provided the opportunity to voluntarily return funds as a “safe harbor” to avoid collections and possible legal prosecution, the organization said some businesses voluntarily returned legitimate funds they deemed unnecessary for their business.

Locally the owner required to return the most was Vanessa Sandoval, owner of Michael’s Tacos, who was instructed to remit $551,885 after an audit was performed. This sum made up all but $3 of the money she had received through the Supplemental Closure Stipend, Coronavirus Mitigation Stipend, and Business Interruption Stipends.

Sandoval did not respond to comment for this story or multiple other related stories.

Jorge Cardenas, owner of HomeGate Real Estate and Jewels Digital Vending Advertising, said he will voluntarily return $365,900, which is all the funds he received.

Cardenas said he has not actually paid any of this sum yet and said he has been given until July to do so in full. He said the Business Council politely denied his request to set up a repayment plan.

“Come collections’ times … they’re going to have to come up with their own payment plan,” he said.

The Business Council would not comment as to whether it is pursuing legal action against any business recipients at this time.

Cardenas said he was confused about the rules of the program when applying for funds and mistakenly used projections for determining his awarded sums.

He is related to the family that runs Michael’s Tacos and said the business made a similar mistake.

“They did spend what they thought was OK to spend it on,” he said. “Anywhere you go … if you see someone squirting with a bottle cleaning, it’s being paid back with COVID.”

He said the Business Council has been relatively easy to deal with during their discussions about returning funds, although he was not pleased with a voicemail left on his phone by WBC CEO Josh Dorrell in which Cardenas said he was made to feel he stole funds from Dorrell personally.

Cardenas said he isn’t worried about the future, as he thinks business will be strong this summer, and said he owns a patent related to placing digital LCD screens on top of vending machines, and is holding out hope he will get comedian George Lopez to frequent his business for a standup show.

“Something has to come through,” he said. “Everyone’s worried about it but I’m not. I’m projecting that hopefully I’ll get it paid (off) in a year or two.”

Stone and Sons Investments, run by Kenneth Stone, was audited and ordered to pay the full $250,000 it had received in early December, and has repaid this full amount. This money was briefly a topic of conversation related to Stone’s bond in a court proceeding for an unrelated criminal case.

There was a more-than $100,000 drop off in regards to how much money the remaining eight business owners had to return.

Taylor Dental ($50,000), H20 Designs ($33,928), I Love Flowers ($22,297), The Zen Den ($18,338), Small Wonders Child Care Center ($11,905),  had to return funds after an audit was performed. Chinatown ($44,562) and Crane Academy ($13,800) returned funds voluntarily and the Lockhart Inn ($22,400) had to do so under the expenditure plan.

The WBC described the expenditure plan as applying to businesses who either were unable to demonstrate the funds provided to them from the business relief were used for allowable purposes and or failed to provide documentation within the reporting window to demonstrate proper use of funds.

(2) comments

Glen Schultz

Good story Leo and good comments Scott. There may have been some legitimate confusion regarding the government's rules / explanation of the return/refund policy... (what could possibly go wrong?). I have no idea what the rules may have been, however, I know for a fact that there are some people that tend to milk the system while many of us build legitimate businesses, often working 12 to 16 hours per day during startup... then pay TREMENDOUSLY high taxes (with no "income-averaging" of the lean startup years once the business takes off). I see it all over... even right here in "river city". My suggestion would be that if you receive "government hand-outs" that you are not due and/or you do not deserve, either give it back to the government (so they can spend it wisely...,well, so they can spend it….) OR, if it is not required by law to refund it, then donate it to a local Veterans organization... no one deserves it more than our Veterans.

Glen Schultz, Wapiti

Scott Weber

Fantastic story and one I have been waiting for. Some Cody citizens were so upset at this fraud that they called not only the Wyoming Business Council, but the Casper office of the FBI. Fantastic reporting and follow-up by Leo. Great investigative story Leo! Let see more articles like this. - Scott Weber, Wapiti

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