Ruby Franke, the Utah parenting advice YouTuber facing child abuse charges, took more than $80,000 in since-forgiven loans from the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program (PPP), records show.
Two of her sisters, who have both publicly condemned Franke and said Franke and business partner Jodi Hildebrandt’s arrests “needed to happen,” also borrowed thousands of dollars in PPP loans that have since been forgiven.
Franke and her two sisters, Bonnie Hoellein and Ellie Mecham, each applied for two rounds of PPP loans on behalf of their productions companies. Like their sister, Hoellien and Mecham are both YouTube and social media personalties, with 1.4 million and 1.6 million YouTube subscribers, respectively.
The loan program was designed to help small businesses weather the storm of COVID-19 and pay employees who lost hours due to the pandemic. But plenty of influencers and content creators used it to pay themselves, raising questions about abuse and misuse.
Franke’s production company — which shared the name of her since-shuttered parenting YouTube channel, 8 Passengers — received two PPP loans amounting to $83,620, according to ProPublica’s loan tracker, which pulls data from the SBA. The company reported having two employees and was owned and operated by Franke and her husband, Kevin. The couple’s YouTube channel was deleted last year.
Bonnie Hoellein’s Hoellein Productions LLC received two PPP loans totaling roughly $53,000. The company reported having three employees. E + J Productions, run by Mecham and her husband, Jared, received roughly $47,000 total from two PPP loans and reported having two employees.
There were no rules against content creators applying for PPP loans. To qualify, applicants needed only be businesses owners with fewer than 500 employees. “Sole proprietors, independent contractors, and self-employed persons” were eligible, according to the Small Business Administration’s website.
But critics have said the program stretched beyond its intended purpose, and people who didn’t really need the money took advantage of it. Tom Brady’s nutrition company received nearly $1 million in forgiven PPP loans.
Several professional athletes and content creators, including Utah-based skiers Brody Leven and Caroline Gleich, faced backlash after a Mountain Gazette article titled “Who is Holding Outdoor Influencers Accountable?” accused them of taking out loans while posting photos and videos of their seemingly luxurious mountain lives. In a since-deleted Instagram post, Gleich publicly responded that the loans were necessary supplements to jobs lost due to travel restrictions and isolation. Leven responded in a blog post that the loans supported his business, and that he personally received a “small portion” of the funds.
As to how Hoellein and Mecham used their PPP loans, neither sister responded to requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune made via social media.
Franke and Hildebrandt were both arrested last month and each charged with six felony counts of aggravated child abuse. Franke and Hildebrandt called themselves “Moms of Truth” on social media and collectively offered parenting and relationship advice to followers through a self-improvement program that Hildebrandt founded called ConneXions.
Neither Hildebrandt nor ConneXions received any PPP loans, a search Wednesday of ProPublica’s loan tracker indicates.
According to charging documents, a neighbor called police Aug. 30 after Franke’s 12-year-old son escaped Hildebrandt’s Ivins home and asked them for food and water. The neighbor noticed duct tape on the boy’s wrists and ankles.
Responding officers found Franke’s 10-year-old daughter malnourished inside Hildebrandt’s home. Both children were taken to a hospital to be treated for malnourishment. The boy also had “deep lacerations from being tied up with rope,” arrest records state.
The children, along with two of Franke’s other children, were placed into the custody of the Utah Division of Children and Family Services.
Several family members — including Franke’s oldest daughter and Franke’s sisters — have since supported the arrests. Hoellein posted a video to her YouTube channel Wednesday morning explaining and defending her initial silence.
“I cannot be fully transparent with certain aspects of this, and if you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand how the system works,” Hoellein said in the video. She said that while she had long suspected that her sister and Hildebrandt’s partnership was “weird,” she added, “we did not know what they were doing. ... We were cut off. We did not have access to anyone.”
Franke and Hildebrandt appeared in court for an initial appearance on Sept. 8. Both remain in Washington County jail, where they are being held without bail.
Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.