US watchdogs guarding $5 trillion in COVID aid say they need more money
The Washington Post December 28, 2022
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WASHINGTON — Michael Horowitz came to Congress with a plea: If the U.S. government truly hoped to keep track of roughly $5 trillion in coronavirus aid, then federal watchdog agencies would need some new money of their own.
It was June 2022, more than two years after the pandemic first arrived in the United States — and Horowitz, the leader of the country’s chief pandemic oversight body, said some of the government’s top officials could use the help. Criminals already had bilked billions of dollars from generous programs meant to help jobless Americans and small businesses in need, and Washington faced long, costly work to try to get it all back.
“I can tell you the fraud numbers, and the investigative work, is growing,” Horowitz told lawmakers at a congressional oversight hearing, acknowledging at one point it had been “frustrating, frankly” that lawmakers had not provided the funds.
Six months later, the government remains overwhelmed in its task to find and retrieve incalculable sums of stolen federal coronavirus aid. Even as the Biden administration has intensified Washington’s focus on oversight, Congress has continued to underfund and understaff some of the very offices whose chief responsibility is to monitor stimulus cash.
The persistent neglect has hamstrung the country’s last defense against waste, fraud and abuse — and raised the potential that Washington might not learn from its mistakes before the next crisis.
“People have a right to know how their money is being spent,” said Horowitz, the chairman of the federal government’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), in an interview with The Washington Post. “Is it being spent in a way that’s wasteful? Did the money go to the right place? Was it defrauded? Accountability goes with understanding where the money went.”
The sheer amount of aid involved has made oversight and tracking difficult. Public resources to explore who received federal money, and what they did with it, remain incomplete despite recent improvements. And the network of watchdogs who do the deeper digging have highlighted at times their own lack of resources - even after requests by the White House and others for more money.
The largest responsibilities — and most significant financial constraints — have fallen on inspectors general, who are tasked to serve as independent voices monitoring federal spending. Repeatedly, Congress has failed to supply some of them with the funds they have requested, leading to a $26 million shortfall in five key offices just over the past two fiscal years, according to a Post analysis of budget records.
At the Small Business Administration, for example, the inspector general has flagged potentially more than $4 billion in fraud targeting the country’s top loan program to aid small businesses. But Congress last year clawed back some of the watchdog’s money to pay for other programs, top officials said. The inspector general at the Labor Department, which oversees the nation’s hard-hit unemployment insurance program, said it has already opened roughly 170,000 investigations — yet it remains “hampered” by a continued lack of full funding.
Similar difficulties have plagued other inspectors general across the U.S. government, a problem that predates the pandemic. But lawmakers in the face of a crisis still have failed to heed those warnings — and Republicans instead have opted to trade political barbs as the full extent of the country’s potential losses comes into view.
“The real need for resources, to my mind is with the [inspectors general], primarily because they’re so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what happened,” Horowitz said.
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The roughly $5 trillion in federal aid approved since the start of the pandemic helped save a country in economic free fall. It kept families afloat even as millions of Americans were furloughed or laid off and countless businesses shuttered, sometimes for good.
The money also paid for vaccinations, assisted hungry families in need of food and provided support to millions of Americans who were behind on their rent, utility and internet bills. And it addressed a wide array of other economic challenges, including improvements to the nation’s infrastructure.
But the story of the U.S. government’s historic stimulus effort also has been one of grift and loss, as The Post has found in its year-long series, the COVID Money Trail. Criminals repeatedly siphoned off federal cash, emboldened by relaxed rules as the government rushed to get money into the hands of people who needed it.
Fraudsters targeted generous unemployment insurance benefits, contributing to an estimated $163 billion in waste while disrupting weekly checks for out-of-work Americans. Other criminals set their sights on the government’s $800 billion small-business loan program, extracting funds illegitimately while the companies reviewing their applications allegedly overlooked warning signs — and profited in the process.
Some state and local governments that received federal aid put it toward unrelated uses: a golf course in Florida, a border crackdown in Texas and tax cuts in other Republican-leaning states, The Post uncovered, later sparking federal scrutiny. And some private companies treated it as a moneymaker: Funds to help needy Americans afford the internet, for example, opened the door for AT&T, T-Mobile and other telecom giants to foist price hikes and service cuts on their customers.
Horowitz, the leader of the PRAC, said the difficulty keeping track of all the spending stemmed in part from Washington’s “pay-and-chase” approach at the outset of the pandemic: Push out money quickly amid an emergency, and save oversight for later, creating an “extraordinarily challenging” burden on the stewards of federal funds.
Congress adopted its first, large stimulus package in March 2020, responding to historic joblessness and a plummeting stock market with the roughly $2 trillion package known as the Cares Act. The law established the PRAC, a convening body for federal inspectors general tasked with coordinating oversight and publishing data about emergency pandemic spending.
The effort resembled the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the entity set up to monitor the roughly $800 billion stimulus implemented to rescue the economy during the 2009 recession. Over its lifetime — overseeing emergency funds, then also monitoring federal aid approved in response to Hurricane Sandy — Washington provided the oversight body about $175 million.
A decade later, though, Congress equipped the recovery board’s successor, the PRAC, with a smaller budget — about $120 million — but asked it to monitor six times as much money as the 2009 stimulus, according to a Post analysis of federal data.
That funding still allowed the PRAC to produce a bevy of reports and a public dashboard for viewing broad categories of stimulus spending. But the quality and completeness of that data varies immensely, preventing the public from fully understanding how, exactly, roughly $5 trillion in federal coronavirus aid has been put to use.
“There’s enough information out there that you know in broad categories what we spent money on, and how much, roughly,” said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. “The problem is if you try at all to really drill down, that’s when it starts to fall apart and become really problematic.”
Compounding the problem, the Trump administration took early, deliberate steps to limit a public accounting of those dollars — a move made at the time in the name of speed. In one April 2020 memo, for example, the White House told agencies to use “existing reporting requirements” with “minimal modifications,” and instructed them to report their data on USAspending.gov, a government portal that often has bare-bones information.
A spokeswoman for Russell Vought, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget who signed that memo, did not respond to a request for comment.
In the case of the Paycheck Protection Program, a roughly $800 billion initiative to loan money to small businesses, it took a lawsuit to force the Trump administration to reveal the names of its beneficiaries. Donald Trump himself even fired Glenn Fine, who had been selected as the leader of the PRAC, as part of a broader assault during his term against the nation’s independent watchdogs.
Reversing that damage ultimately fell to President Biden, who tapped Gene Sperling in 2021 to oversee stimulus spending following the passage of the final coronavirus aid law, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Sperling soon found himself convening new, regular meetings with inspectors general across the government, laboring to address many of the issues and tensions that had impeded their investigations for years.
Sperling, in a statement, said the administration had put an emphasis on “weekly engagement [and] deep-dive problem solving,” with the goal to “maximize cooperation while respecting IG independence.”
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Behind the scenes, though, other problems mounted — and the nation’s inspectors general began to face growing financial constraints.
These and other watchdog offices received about $480 million in new money to oversee six major bills totaling more than $5 trillion in coronavirus aid, according to data provided by the White House - a staggering gap that the watchdogs at times have described as a significant limitation on their work.
The situation has grown especially dire at the Labor Department, which manages unemployment insurance. By spring, Larry Turner, the department’s inspector general, estimated that the government had made $163 billion in overpayments, a figure reflecting money stolen from Washington and erroneous sums paid to Americans who were legitimately in need.
Citing a slew of ongoing investigations — and the potential it could uncover still more fraud in the months ahead — Turner asked Congress this year for a roughly $17 million boost to its budget to address a threat “unlike any that has ever been seen.”
The risks to taxpayers’ dollars — and the growing strain on the nation’s leading watchdogs — are laid bare in several largely unnoticed annual reports and other documents reviewed by The Post over the past year. They paint a picture of a federal oversight apparatus often clamoring, without success, for help from a distracted, divided Capitol Hill.
To date, the U.S. government has secured a wide array of charges, convictions, fines and prison sentences against those who authorities say took advantage of workers, families and businesses in greatest need. But that work has been expensive and difficult, and in the eyes of some inspectors general, it has created challenges for their limited staffs that may outlast the pandemic.
When Congress adopted the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last year, for example, it set aside $350 billion for cities and states to address their financial needs. But lawmakers at the time awarded no new funds to the Treasury Department’s top oversight body to track that specific pot of money, forcing it to stretch its existing funds.
Rich Delmar, the deputy inspector general, said his office had raised the issue with Capitol Hill, and “made our point that we can do a better job if we had some dedicated funding for that.”
In the meantime, the $350 billion — which came with few, hard-to-enforce rules — opened the door for cities and states to use the money in potentially problematic ways. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) used interest generated from federal coronavirus aid to finance flights of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
The arrangement, first uncovered by The Post, later sparked an investigation by Delmar’s office, which to date has closed 255 cases with work resulting in 10 arrests and indictments. Lawmakers have since added some to the inspector general’s budget, as it forges ahead with 130 active probes and a slew of ongoing oversight responsibilities, including keeping watch over funds that benefited cash-strapped renters.
Elsewhere in government, the recent requests have come amid a growing wave of fraud. At the Small Business Administration (SBA), which managed about $1 trillion in coronavirus aid, the agency’s watchdog has said the losses to taxpayers are in the billions — yet the exact sum, while expected to grow, still remains unknown as investigations continue.
Under siege, the SBA’s inspector general — Hannibal “Mike” Ware — tried to bring the matter to lawmakers’ attention earlier this year. He sought an extra $10 million for his office to oversee federal COVID funds, warning that a wave of expected loan defaults threatened to jeopardize even more taxpayer money.
“[The office] faces a historic challenge as it oversees SBA’s role in the nation’s pandemic response,” he wrote in a submission to Congress in March.
Last week, lawmakers delivered the extra money that his agency sought. But the increase still did not appear to address the office’s full needs. Only a year earlier, Congress raided the SBA’s budget — including $20 million of its oversight funds — to pay for an unrelated bill to improve the country’s infrastructure. The money came out of funds meant to oversee a key SBA program, the COVID-19 loan-and-grant program known as EIDL.
An SBA spokesman said the agency still expects to exhaust all of the remaining oversight money it received under past coronavirus aid laws by the 2024 fiscal year, precisely when “hundreds of billions” of dollars in loans made under the EIDL program start coming due.
The concerns about fraud — and the need for greater funding — have captured attention at the highest levels of government. Biden himself began the year with a pledge to prosecute those who took advantage of workers, families and businesses in greatest need.
In his State of the Union address, Biden announced in March that the “watchdogs have been welcomed back” to Washington - then promised to pursue “the criminals who stole billions in relief money.” He also used the moment to announce the Justice Department’s plans to appoint a “COVID prosecutor,” leading the agency later in the spring to name Kevin Chambers as its director for COVID-19 fraud enforcement.
At times, though, Biden’s clamoring for aggressive oversight has received little attention in Congress. Chambers, testifying in front of a key House oversight panel earlier this year, personally urged lawmakers to approve “significant resources” for his work — citing the president’s request for $41.2 million so that the Justice Department could ramp up its efforts to fight fraud.
But the amount never arrived, as lawmakers failed repeatedly — including in last week’s $1.7 trillion omnibus bill — to provide all of the aid sought for prosecutions in Biden’s 2022 and 2023 budgets, according to a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe discussions that were ongoing.
The Justice Department declined to comment. Chambers, meanwhile, announced in early December he would rejoin the law firm Latham and Watkins to serve as a partner in white collar defense and investigations.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers this year did adopt legislation that would give federal prosecutors more time to bring fraud cases involving the nation’s small business lending programs. Often, though, they have failed to act watchdogs’ recommendations and adopt bills that might help the government track its spending in the event of a future crisis.
Instead, members of Congress have bickered with each other about the merits of the country’s roughly $5 trillion in aid. Republicans in particular have also promised to focus their attention on trying to investigate the White House. Even though many in the party voted for some of the earliest stimulus packages, which Trump signed into law, some GOP lawmakers have sought to pin the blame for waste, fraud and abuse on the current administration alone.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do with respect to trying to get some accountability,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who is expected to assume the chairmanship of the powerful House Oversight Committee in January.
Turner, the inspector general of the Labor Department, had asked for about $108 million in funding for the 2023 fiscal year, which runs until the end of September 2023. In justifying the request, his office pointed to its past shortfalls — and its newly crushing caseloads.
The watchdog had 310 workers at the end of 2021 fiscal year, nearly 200 fewer than it employed 25 years ago, according to agency data. The following year, its ranks grew by 33 people, despite overwhelming demands on staffers’ time and attention, with nearly 170,000 active investigations related to coronavirus funds, a spokesman confirmed.
Many of those cases involve criminals who obtained weekly jobless aid checks by stealing Americans’ identities or applying for benefits in the names of prisoners or dead people, the inspector general found. They took advantage of overwhelmed states and out-of-date computer systems to abscond with staggering sums. And they avoided detection, at least for a time, until the Biden administration intervened in a little-known dispute that kept the inspector general from reviewing claims data easily, The Post reported earlier this year.
Appearing on Capitol Hill this spring, Turner delivered a personal plea in pursuit of more aid, telling lawmakers in testimony that the “volume” of investigations into stolen unemployment benefits “is unprecedented in the [office’s] history.”
Nine months later, Congress wrote him a check - for about $10 million less than he requested.
The Washington Post’s Chiqui Esteban contributed to this story.