- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 5, 2020

DALLAS (AP) - A group of hotels that took, and later returned, tens of millions of dollars in federal virus-bailout money are under investigation by securities regulators for transactions between companies in the group going back to 2018.

The Ashford companies were among the biggest recipients of federal money that was intended to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic.

The companies disclosed in a regulatory filing this week that they received subpoenas from the Securities and Exchange Commission for transactions that go back long before the pandemic hit. The subpoenas went to Ashford Hospitality Trust, Ashford Inc., and Braemar Hotels & Resorts.

All three companies were founded and are run by Dallas hotelier Monty J. Bennett, a major Republican donor who has given $150,000 to President Donald Trump’s PAC in the past year and $373,250 since 2016, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Ashford said the companies are responding to the SEC’s request for documents and other information and can’t predict the outcome. However, it said the investigation could harm its business, and if the SEC determines violations occurred, it could mean “significant” civil penalties, criminal penalties, or both.

Ashford indicated that the SEC asked about various transactions including one in which a subsidiary was paid to renegotiate mortgage debt for other Ashford entities. The SEC also asked about any deals between the companies and corporate officers or directors, and for information about accounting practices regarding related-party transactions.

Such transactions aren’t illegal but can draw scrutiny because of the potential for helping company insiders at the expense of shareholders or creditors.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that lawyers for another company locked in a dispute with Ashford Hospitality Trust over a defaulted loan accused it of crafting deals to help insiders while creditors get nothing. Ashford Hospitality has denied the accusation.

The companies own upscale hotels including some under the Marriott and Ritz Carlton brands. The hospitality industry has been under severe strain as the pandemic chokes off both personal and business travel.

The Ashford companies came under public scrutiny after applying for up to $126 million in forgivable low-interest loans from a federal fund designed to help small businesses survive this year.

The three companies received at least $74 million, according to an Associated Press analysis. An executive for the Ashford companies said Wednesday they returned all the payroll-help proceeds they received, a statement that the company has made before.

The companies declined to say how much they received.

Bennett and dozens of other companies have blamed confusing federal guidance about the relief program.

News of the SEC subpoenas was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.

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