An Eastside real estate investor being sued by former associates who say she funded her property acquisitions with money fraudulently acquired in a China-based Ponzi scheme received more than $150,000 in Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans, according to the federal agency in charge of the pot of cash.
A loan database released by the Small Business Administration shows Kung Fu Panda LLC, a business owned by Jialin “Kathy” Niu, received between $150,000 and $350,000 in federal funds to retain employees during the pandemic.
Niu said she received $190,000 to cover two-and-a-half months of payroll for the equivalent of 19 full-time positions at Echo Falls Country Club in Snohomish. Kung Fu Panda purchased the course in 2015 from Bellevue golf magnate Oki Holdings in a $6 million seller-financed transaction.
The club workers, though, are employed by Columbia Hospitality. Niu contracts with the company to manage the course. She said Columbia manages payroll, and told her to apply for the federal funds on its behalf.
That’s not standard practice, according to an attorney familiar with PPP issues who asked not to be named because he was unsure whether his firm had a conflict of interest in the Niu case. With few exceptions, the company that handles payroll applies for the loan. Columbia received its own PPP loan, of between $2 million and $5 million, to retain 145 employees.
Columbia Hospitality vice president Shawn Cucciardi said he had “no knowledge” of how his company was working with clients on PPP loans.
In China, Niu headed up a chain of schools purporting to teach the secret of wealth creation through property investment, according to the suit filed in King County Superior Court by eight former students.
The suit claims Niu “brainwashed” students into borrowing fantastic sums to invest in shell companies she controlled. The companies initially appeared to pay dividends — so long as a steady stream of new investors poured in, according to the suit.
Eventually, the plaintiffs say, Niu bankrupted them by funneling the cash back to Washington, where she used it to buy property including waterfront mansions and a major chunk of prime commercial real estate in downtown Bellevue.
Niu said the allegations were baseless. “I don’t think we did anything wrong,” she said. “It’s a normal business.”
Niu is far from the only real estate investor, property developer or broker to receive PPP funds. More than 300 local real estate businesses received federal pandemic loans. Most of the money went to property management firms and real estate brokerages, who say they’ve seen revenues plummet as a result of falling transaction volumes and low commercial rent collections.
Home listings plunged in early April, dragging sales behind them. Real estate agents are independent contractors, but brokerages also directly employ personnel to manage marketing, events, accounting and communications, who were all affected by the downturn in revenues, said Windermere spokesperson Shelley Rossi. The brokerage headquarters received as much as $2 million to retain 75 of those jobs, according to the database.
Since the pandemic, Seattle property management company Blanton Turner has seen two months of losses, said chief financial officer Alan Byars. The company — which manages 70 local retail, office, mixed-use residential and student housing properties — makes a percentage of rent collected. Collections at some commercial properties are down 50%, he said. At student housing, currently roughly half-occupied, collections aren’t much better.
In April, Blanton Turner received $2.5 million in PPP loans to retain 206 employees, Byars confirmed. The company has since hired four more workers.
But as clients struggle to meet mortgage and tax obligations, they’re pushing Blanton Turner to cut staff. Future projections, Byars said, “are not pretty.”