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Democrats seek investigation into Pentagon’s coronavirus fund

By AARON GREGG AND YEGANEH TORBATI | The Washington Post | Published: September 22, 2020

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Congressional Democrats sharply criticized a Defense Department decision to repurpose a $1 billion coronavirus fund into an economic stimulus for defense contractors, a change the lawmakers say violated congressional intent. Two lawmakers asked for an investigation and public hearings on the matter following a Washington Post article that revealed the change.

The funds, set aside under the Cares Act economic stimulus package passed in March, were given to the Pentagon to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” But the Defense Department, acting in consultation with the White House Office of Management and Budget, as well as other federal agencies, decided to divert most of that funding toward long-standing defense concerns such as drone technology, body armor and dress uniforms.

Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., called for a formal investigation reviewing the legality of the Defense Department’s decision to use any of the coronavirus funding for defense industry stimulus.

“For the Administration to choose to use funds Congress made available to fight COVID-19 on the wish lists of defense contractors, instead of first protecting troops and the general public from the spread of the coronavirus, is unconscionable and should be investigated fully and prosecuted if warranted,” Pocan and Lee wrote in a letter to House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.; Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.

Jessica R. Maxwell, a spokesperson at the Department of Defense, said “as with all congressional correspondence, we will respond directly to the authors of the letter.”

Smith, whose committee position would have put him in close contact with the Defense Department as it developed its spending plans, said the decision to repurpose funds shows how the Trump administration “continues to exploit the trust of the American people.” It was unclear from the release whether he intended to investigate the issue further, but he noted that the Defense Department’s latest request for another $5.3 billion in Defense Production Act investments has come without a “properly detailed” spending plan.

“Instead of focusing on a clear, coordinated strategy to produce and acquire the medical supplies necessary to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, the Trump Administration carved up this billion-dollar appropriation and spent three dollars on defense contracts for every dollar it spent on acquiring health resources,” Smith wrote in a news release.

Shortly after they decided to repurpose the funds, top Defense Department procurement officials explained their reasoning to members of Congress, arguing that the $1 billion could be diverted because the Department of Health and Human Services had accessed other funds. And in a statement to The Post on Monday, they argued that funding niche defense capabilities is essential to maintaining the economic and national security of the U.S.

“We are thankful the Congress provided authorities and resources that enabled the (executive branch) to invest in domestic production of critical medical resources and protect key defense capabilities from the consequences of COVID,” Under Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord said in a statement. “We need to always remember that economic security and national security are very tightly interrelated and our industrial base is really the nexus of the two.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the decision to repurpose funds is an example of how President Donald Trump’s “bungled” response to the pandemic.

“Instead of addressing the urgent needs of a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 Americans, the Trump Administration is using money meant to protect lives from COVID-19 to pad the pockets of defense contractors,” Warren wrote in an emailed statement. “Donald Trump’s bungled pandemic response shows that the government continues to work great for wealthy corporations but not for working families.”