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Businesses have taken at least half a trillion dollars in coronavirus aid from the American public, and the government is refusing to disclose which companies are getting the money.

The lack of oversight in the system for US lawmakers’ “paycheck protection program” makes the historic levels of spending ripe for abuse. The media and watchdogs cannot scrutinize the payments to ensure against waste, fraud or favors to political allies.

Eleven national news publications are suing for public records, yet little public attention has gone to the problem, as the government has scrambled to respond to a cratered economy and unemployment that has soared past 40m jobless claims.

“It’s absolutely mind-boggling that we’re in a situation where we’re shoveling so much money out to private businesses, and we don’t know where it’s going,” said Kyle Herrig, founder of the watchdog group Accountable.US.

Loans under the program are forgivable, meaning companies don’t have to pay them back. Recipients are meant to spend the money on continuing to pay workers or on recurring expenses, such as rent and utilities.

As Congress rushed to provide economic relief to US businesses, it also sent money to companies that did not critically need financial aid. More than 300 publicly traded companies received payments. Indebted fossil-fuel producers have been among them. At least one company used its aid to benefit wealthy, private jet-owning clients. Small businesses, meanwhile, say they have struggled to gain access to the loans.

The program has also raised concerns of conflicts of interest. A top treasury department official charged with steering the coronavirus bailout program is set to benefit financially from the spending he is overseeing.

Liz Hempowicz, policy director at the Project On Government Oversight, said the program and the cracks in it demonstrate a “shocking lack of transparency”.

Meaghan Smith, a Democratic strategist and former Department of Health and Human Services official, said the amount of aid is unprecedented.

“It’s trillions of dollars that was passed basically at warp speed so I think there are severe concerns about the level of oversight,” Smith said.

Oversight advocates want Democrats to demand better transparency with any funds they approve. But the Senate’s Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has said any additional aid legislation should be narrower in scope than Democrats in the House have backed. Congress and Donald Trump last week updated the program to let businesses spend more of the money on expenses other than payroll – but they declined to set new oversight requirements.

One transparency measure was defeated after failing to get support from two-thirds of lawmakers in the House. The bill, sponsored by Congressman Dean Phillips from Minnesota, would have required the Small Business Administration to make information about payments to businesses public.

“We cannot accept a situation in which bigger businesses with access to other sources of liquidity are pushing to the front of the line at the expense of those with the greatest need,” Phillips said on the House floor.

The government bailout for businesses is unprecedented, dwarfing what went out even during the 2008 recession. In the first 14 days of lending, the SBA oversaw 1.7m loans totaling more than $342bn, more than it administered over the last 14 years. By 30 May, those figures had grown to 4.5m loans totaling $510bn.

The SBA has refused to release its loan records to media organizations and transparency groups. In a 20 April letter to Accountable.US, the SBA official William Briggs pointed to “privacy and confidentiality issues”.

The SBA’s internal watchdog has already found that the program “did not fully align” with the legislation’s provisions, including for giving banks guidance about which loans to prioritize.

None of the entities involved are required to publicly disclose where the money is going – not the banks lending the money, the companies taking it nor the government agencies overseeing the program. The government has said it will review loans of more than $2m.

Revelations of loans so far have come from voluntary disclosures, leaks by whistleblowers, or regulatory filings required of publicly traded companies. Big companies – including the $4.4bn NBA team the Los Angeles Lakers and $2.2bn fast-food chain Shake Shack – have taken money and then given it back following media scrutiny.

Congress did establish a five-person panel to oversee spending, but it does not have the power to subpoena records.

Bharat Ramamurti is on that commission and is also managing director for the corporate power program at the liberal Roosevelt Institute thinktank.

“To me, the biggest issue with the PPP [paycheck protection program] is not the Lakers and Shake Shack are not getting the money, it’s that hundreds of thousands of small businesses that are eligible for PPP and really need PPP are not getting it,” Ramamurti said, noting he was speaking for himself and not the commission.

“That is more tragic to me than a public company getting a few million bucks.”

Many of the companies getting aid have hundreds of employees and are worth millions or billions of dollars. They fit the legal description of a “small business” but are not the mom-and-pop companies in most Americans’ minds.

At the same time, businesses like local restaurants and shops have said they have not been able to access the funds – or have had longer waits than bigger companies – and have been forced to lay off employees and even permanently close.

A survey of small businesses by the Census Bureau through the beginning of May found that only 38% of those that had asked for a loan had received one. Minority-owned businesses have had an even harder time – only 12% that sought loans got them, according to a survey by two equal-rights organizations.

Rob Grover, the economic development coordinator for Trempealeau county in Wisconsin, said “it seems like this program and many others have really focused on helping the large Wall Street businesses”.

Laid-off workers are frustrated to see big corporations getting money when they have received at most a $1,200 payment from the government, Grover said. An additional unemployment insurance benefit of $600 a week has been helpful, but many Wisconsinites have not received it yet because of a backlog in applications, he added.

Republicans leaders in Washington oppose extending that benefit.

In all, the government has spent about $3tn on coronavirus aid in four separate packages.

Of that, $784bn has been allocated to individuals, including unemployment benefits, paid leave and direct cash payments, according to NPR. Far more has been set aside for businesses: $810bn for small businesses, $513bn in tax benefits for all businesses and $532bn in non-forgivable loans to large corporations.

“A lot of folks feel like maybe the government isn’t focusing on them, and is leaving them behind,” Grover said.