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    Wednesday, April 17, 2024

    'Immense fraud' found in $6 trillion in emergency coronavirus spending

    With the passage of the most recent, $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last year, President Joe Biden, seen at an East Room meeting in the White House in January, tapped Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser, to serve as a federal traffic cop for the law. (Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman)

    WASHINGTON - In Stamford, Conn., a 46-year-old resident pleaded guilty after putting a portion of $4 million in coronavirus aid toward the purchase of a Porsche. And a Mercedes. And a BMW. 

    In Somerset, N.J., a 51-year-old woman allegedly invented employees, inflated wages and fabricated entire tax filings to collect $1 million in loans.

    And in St. Petersburg, Fla., a federal judge sentenced to prison a 63-year-old man who obtained $800,000 on behalf of businesses that did not exist.

    The cases and charges, each announced over the past month, count among hundreds involving a slew of programs enacted by Congress in the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic - money dispatched with an urgency at the time that is now putting Washington's watchdogs to the test.

    Roughly two years after lawmakers approved their first tranche of rescue funds, the U.S. government is grappling with an unprecedented challenge: how to oversee its own historic stimulus effort. Totaling nearly $6 trillion, the loans, grants, direct checks and other emergency assistance summed to more than entire federal budget in the fiscal year before the coronavirus arrived, creating a unique and long-term strain on the nation's policymakers to ensure the funds have been put to good use.

    Policymakers and economics widely agree that the investments helped rescue the U.S. economy from the worst crisis since the Great Depression, aiding out-of-work Americans and saving businesses from shuttering for good. But the money remains hard to track. There are lingering questions as to whether it benefited those who needed it the most. And the aid continues to be a ripe target for criminals nationwide, the full extent of which is only beginning to come to light.

    "There is no question that the immense fraud that took place at the crush of the pandemic in 2020, particularly in small business loans and unemployment insurance, is the largest oversight challenge the Biden administration inherited," said Gene Sperling, the president's chief coordinator for stimulus spending, stressing that the administration is taking "significant steps to strengthen anti-fraud controls."

    Nowhere was the promise and peril more evident than at the Small Business Administration. The normally lumbering SBA moved at lightning speed to disburse roughly $1 trillion to cash-strapped firms, hoping to stanch the bleeding at a time when many companies were laying off workers in droves. But the agency's approach, particularly during the Trump administration, also carried a steep cost, as the SBA did not put in place a wide array of policies that might have prevented significant waste, fraud and abuse.

    The troubles are laid bare in stinging federal oversight reports issued over the past year. Across the agency's two key emergency initiatives, investigators have questioned nearly every aspect of SBA's spending, flagging billions of dollars in suspect loans and grants, overpayments to those who should not have received them and in some cases outright fraud. One effort meant to help businesses in economic distress may even be rife with identity theft: Watchdogs said they had received more than 845,000 applications for aid that are now suspected of having come from individuals using stolen identities - some of which were funded anyway.

    Meanwhile, the calls to the SBA's tip line for criminal activity spiked by more than 37,000% over an 18-month period earlier in the outbreak. The agency's top watchdog issued numerous warnings about its management of more recent stimulus programs adopted under President Joe Biden, including multibillion-dollar funding for restaurants and performance spaces. And only last month, the SBA received another blow: A panel of pandemic watchdogs highlighted more than five dozen criminal cases that might have been prevented if only the SBA had been more diligent earlier in the pandemic.

    The troubles may represent just the tip of the iceberg, according to federal officials and outside experts, who together warn the U.S. government could face years of expensive and intricate sleuthing work. The agency's own inspector general, Hannibal "Mike" Ware, long has cautioned in that the SBA faces a daunting future, telling Congress in January it is still "realizing the true scope of fraud" that occurred under its watch.

    "Managing COVID-19 stimulus lending is the greatest overall challenge facing SBA," he stressed in written testimony, "and it may likely continue to be for many years as the agency grapples with fraud in the programs."

    The SBA declined to make officials available for an interview or answer specific questions. Han Nguyen, an agency spokesman, stressed in a statement that the Biden administration has been "working since its outset to address fraud concerns we inherited from the Trump Administration and to ensure the sound administration of pandemic relief programs."

    A spokesman for the agency's inspector general declined comment.

    - - -

    The troubles now plaguing the U.S. government reflect the crucial question facing policymakers at the start of the pandemic: Should they act fast to save the economy from collapse or slow down in the face of a crisis to safeguard every dollar from potential misuse?

    Amid the tumult of spring 2020, the federal government opted for haste, embarking on an all-out blitz to blunt the pandemic's immediate physical and financial toll. Federal leaders stood up massive programs to float easy loans to businesses, pump hospitals full of funds, sustain local governments' finances, purchase protective equipment and send checks to Americans, all at a time when about 1 million workers were losing their jobs each day.

    Those stimulus checks reached more than 175 million Americans in the latest round last year, while other aid benefited more than 6 million small businesses over the fuller course of the pandemic, federal data show. The scope of spending over the two-year period touched virtually every part of modern society - and rivaled anything Washington had ever executed in the past. It also sparked early fears about fraud, prompting lawmakers to set up a slew of oversight efforts to ensure their emergency measures did not become a windfall for criminals.

    Lawmakers poured resources into the nation's inspectors general, who oversee key federal agencies involved in disbursing stimulus money. They commissioned two special panels on Capitol Hill and created two additional federal bodies within the executive branch to oversee the aid. The Justice Department, for its part, set up a special task force to investigate wrongdoing. And with the passage of the most recent, $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last year, Biden tapped Sperling, a top economic adviser, to serve as a federal traffic cop for the law.

    The efforts resulted in some early successes: Federal law enforcement over the past two years brought numerous cases against fraudsters who improperly tried to collect unemployment benefits, for example, while federal scrutiny has helped ensure the more efficient delivery of tens of billions of dollars in assistance. That included money set aside to help Americans pay their rents, which had been slowed dramatically by federal bureaucracy.

    But the vigilance at times has lagged. Congress has not always held the grueling, vigorous hearings that helped lawmakers spotlight misspent sums during the financial collapse in 2009. And Democrats and Republicans have earmarked only about $478 million for oversight over the course of five major rescue packages since March 2020, according to a review of federal data and figures provided by the White House. That equates to about $1 in new oversight money for more than $12,000 in coronavirus stimulus spending, an analysis of the data shows.

    "It's all coming down to our [inspector general] offices essentially," said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, an ethics watchdog. "We gave them money, we gave them a certain amount of capacity increases, but not nearly enough."

    Moulton said he recalled numerous conversations with the inspectors general, which he praised as "active" in their work. But he also said they acknowledged "in these meetings that they have to focus on the larger awards" and not the scores of smaller loans, grants, checks and other benefits that taken together could amount to substantial fraud.

    "You just know that means these smaller awards are getting almost a free pass," he said.

    One of the newer federal watchdogs, a collection of inspectors general known as the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), immediately set about after spring 2020 to create a public-facing hub for tracking stimulus spending. It stood up in a matter of weeks a transparency portal that mimicked the tools created to document spending authorized in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

    Nearly two years later, however, the stimulus data is voluminous yet vexing - for the public and the government alike. The spending portal does not offer a real-time, detailed view as to the way cities, states, schools, hospitals and others actually have deployed broad swaths of the cash they received. In education, for example, federal records show more than $81 billion set aside for school districts in response to the pandemic. Yet the information is 90 days old in some cases and offers no insight as to what those communities actually did once they obtained the grants.

    The trouble dates to the earliest days of the pandemic, when independent auditors documented significant data "gaps," some resulting from the Trump administration and others from the way the first major stimulus law, known as the Cares Act, had been written. Investigators at the time recommended substantial changes to the way the government collected information, some of which may have required action from Congress.

    By 2021, Biden's top aides intensified the work to improve the oversight process, particularly after the passage of the American Rescue Plan last March. Yet the efforts failed to satisfy lawmakers, federal watchdogs, health professionals and ethics experts, a dozen of whom said in interviews that they have struggled to answer the most basic questions - including how much money has been spent, and how, in critical areas such as testing.

    "There are huge voids, and more comprehensive data is step one for our ability to watchdog," said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, an ethics-in-government nonprofit organization.

    Michael Horowitz, the chairman of the PRAC who also serves as the inspector general for the Justice Department, said the organization had worked diligently to stand up its public portal and retain an entire analytics team to monitor the data. In some cases, he said, the commission tapped its own funds to help the government build reporting tools that otherwise did not exist - as was the case with an earlier, $150 billion program to help state and local governments cover the costs of pandemic response.

    But Horowitz acknowledged in an interview that the data still might be "gibberish to most people." And he explained that watchdogs only have so much power: "That's because the agencies aren't collecting data that would help us provide even greater transparency."

    "If Congress wanted us to do more, if the administration wanted us to do more, we would have to get the funding to do it," Horowitz later added.

    Elsewhere, federal oversight bodies have been neglected or are newly at risk of becoming defunct - even before their mission is complete.

    A congressional panel chartered in 2020 to oversee the Federal Reserve's lending programs, for example, never even reached full strength after Democrats and Republicans could not agree on a chairperson. The commission now consists solely of two GOP lawmakers. At times, it has struggled to obtain detailed data from the government concerning about $735 million in remaining loans for cash-strapped companies whose survival matters to national security, according to Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., one of its members.

    "We've made strong criticisms of those," he said, "and we will be making some strong recommendations for future Congresses."

    A second governmental body, tasked to oversee some of the Treasury Department's loans, spent months warring within the Biden administration in an attempt to expand the scope of its own authorities. Last month, the leader of the entity, known as the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, raised another concern: It informed Congress it could run out of money as soon as this summer, potentially threatening to shut down its efforts to oversee more than $22 billion in outstanding loans.

    "The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and Congress's unprecedented investment in the American economy has been prey to unprecedented levels of crime and fraud," warned Brian D. Miller, the special inspector general, in a Jan. 31 report to lawmakers.

    - - -

    But the most potent challenge facing federal watchdogs may still be on the horizon, as Washington begins to grapple with the decisions that allowed it to disburse trillions in aid with such haste in the first place. After all, the loans the government made must be forgiven or repaid, meaning the worst might be yet to come.

    "It's hard to chase the money after it's gone out the door," said Glenn Fine, a nonresident fellow with the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution who previously served as an inspector general at DOJ. "It will be a long-term challenge to recover the fraudulent money, and that's not going to go away."

    Under the Trump administration, the SBA mounted in a matter of weeks two primary initiatives - the Paycheck Protection Program, which helped companies maintain their payrolls, and a souped-up version of the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which expanded existing federal offerings to help businesses weather hardship. Facing a hemorrhaging economy, the SBA moved at lightning speed to implement the efforts: In just one 14-day period early in the pandemic, it dispatched 1.7 million loans through PPP totaling more than $343 billion, federal officials said in a review published in January.

    That burst amounted to 14 years' worth of lending activity for the agency. But the SBA doled out the money without properly verifying applicants and checking them in some cases against long-standing federal blacklists for fraud, investigators would discover in a series of blistering reports and audits soon to come.

    "Managing COVID 19 stimulus is the greatest overall challenge facing SBA currently," Ware, the agency's inspector general, warned in October 2020.

    With PPP, for example, a report last January from the SBA's inspector general found roughly 55,000 PPP loans worth more than $7 billion had gone to "potentially ineligible businesses." That ultimately "placed taxpayer funds at risk of financial loss and delayed the amount of critical program capital available for eligible businesses" at the time.

    About two months later, Ware and other watchdogs estimated the fuller range of potential fraud across PPP and the SBA's economic stimulus programs came closer to $80 billion, telling lawmakers in written testimony at the time that he had grown concerned that agency remains "susceptible to significant fraud risks."

    The sheer extent of those long-known vulnerabilities later became apparent in a series of recent federal enforcement actions. Just this month, for example, a federal court in Rhode Island sentenced two locals in Warwick after they tried to deceive the SBA over roughly $500,000 in PPP loans. They claimed they had dozens of employees earning wages at their businesses when, in fact, they had no workers at all, federal authorities had alleged. (Before being charged, one of the suspects sought unsuccessfully to stage his own suicide.)

    In a separate case, a man in Virginia pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in connection with more than $900,000 in SBA funds. In that case, the suspect never even had a business in the first place, the government claimed.

    In other instances, some of the suspect applicants submitted fake documents or registered as corporations only after they had applied for funds. They filed dozens of applications, sometimes from the same Internet address. And still more applied under stolen or questionable names, addresses and bank account numbers, which the SBA funded.

    The sheer scope of malicious activity, documented in a raft of federal oversight reports, also has led some experts outside Washington to estimate the extent of PPP fraud is far greater than what the U.S. government acknowledges. One report from academics at the University of Texas at Austin revised at the end of last year pegged the amount of questionable loans made under the program alone at closer to $68.9 billion.

    The EIDL program has fared similarly: In a series of reports, dating back to spring 2021, the agency's inspector general affirmed that widespread lapses meant that the SBA had funded applications for aid made possible by identity theft.

    The report showed the SBA had referred roughly 845,000 complaints about identify theft involving EIDL for the OIG to investigate. SBA may have disbursed more than $6 billion in loans and nearly $500,000 in grants to thousands of those questionable entities, according to the review, which said the cases involved bank account numbers that had been switched at the last minute - "an additional indicator of potential fraud."

    The troubles didn't stop there. By the end of 2021, the inspector general had unearthed roughly $4.5 billion that SBA appeared to overpay in grants to self-employed workers and others, who may not have been eligible to claim the funds since they did not have additional employees. And the inspector general also found about $3.9 billion paid out under EIDL to entities already appearing on the Treasury Department's so-called "Do Not Pay" anti-fraud list. (Some of the potentially fraudulent recipients had already been flagged in other federal reports.)

    Even the most basic tasks appeared at times to confound the agency. That included a roughly $18 million grant SBA awarded to help set up an informational and training hub for small businesses trying to adapt to the coronavirus. Reviewing the program in January, the inspector general questioned most of its costs. It found "less than 1 percent of the 30 million small businesses it was intended to help" had even used the portal. And the watchdog discovered only 62 of approximately 14,000 counselors had received training on it.

    Entering the Biden administration, the SBA under its new leader, Isabel Guzman, began to act on some of the issues raised by the agency's own watchdogs. The SBA improved its vetting systems to better target later rounds of stimulus aid and compare its data with that amassed by other agencies.

    The SBA also started reviewing random samples of loans, 10,000 at a time, to root out potential fraud, its spokesman said in a statement, adding it had "referred $1.7 billion to our inspector general for further investigation" on potential fraud. And the White House launched a broader, government-wide effort to take aim at identity theft to aid the SBA and other federal agencies now grappling with the problem.

    In a statement, Sperling said that SBA had funded "the very large majority who were honorable small businesses in need of and deserving pandemic relief." But he also acknowledged that was "a second small bucket who argue they met the letter of the law but clearly abused the spirit of the law and the values of most Americans, and a third group that committed outright fraud."

    The remedies nonetheless drew early praise from Ware, who told lawmakers in January that the SBA had made key strides in addressing the lapses raised by his team. "Many of our recommendations ... have been put in place," he said.

    But the damage in some ways had been done. With loans, grants and other benefits already in the hands of criminals, federal officials still were left to acknowledge that they faced a gargantuan task in pursuing sums that never should have left Washington. Ware, for one, described the months ahead to Congress as "where the rubber meets the road," particularly in chasing down further fraud.

    Some of the money might be difficult or impossible now to recover. In January, GAO estimated that the SBA had already fully extended forgiveness to roughly $550 billion in loans made under the generous rules that Congress created for PPP. Citing other auditor data, though, the watchdog added that the government had paid lenders $49 billion to forgive PPP loans, despite the fact they were "still being reviewed by SBA to address alerts and flags indicative of eligibility concerns."

    "Unless the government moves quickly, the chance to shut off an easy channel to hold people's feet to the fire for fraudulent loans may be lost," said John Griffin, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business who had put together the earlier study of fraud in the program.

    The GAO has said it plans to further scrutinize the federal forgiveness process, while the SBA's inspector general has included the issue as one of dozens on its target list for oversight in 2022. In the meantime, though, the risks across the agency have continued to grow.

    In April, for example, the inspector general issued an alert about "serious concerns" in the government's work to keep watch over $15 billion in newly authorized money to aid shuttered stages and other venues. And still another report, issued this January from the federal advisory body known as the PRAC, raised the possibility that another recent SBA program targeting restaurants may suffer from the same problems that had plagued PPP.

    In one potentially telling case, a dentist in Oregon who had been turned away from other government aid programs allegedly managed to obtain $8 million in restaurant assistance, relying on "fictitious business entities" to deceive the SBA. The Justice Department announced the criminal complaint in December.

    The White House, meanwhile, is exploring how to further tighten the reins on federal spending, potentially in seeking new money to aid law enforcement, according to a senior official. Sperling, for one, said they had launched regular meetings with the inspectors general to improve oversight, including efforts to better monitor eligibility and improve reporting requirements.

    "We have been consistently supportive and remain supportive of ensuring the oversight community has the resources to detect, prevent and punish fraud," Sperling said.

    Only in November, though, congressional lawmakers raided some of those very oversight funds - to help pay for their $1 trillion package to improve the nation's infrastructure. In rescinding unused dollars from EIDL, one of the loan-and-grant initiatives at the SBA, Democrats and Republicans essentially cut into some of the money that the agency's inspector general had planned to devote toward oversight.

    The issue loomed large over Ware when he appeared before the House Small Business Committee last month. As Washington struggled to grasp the "true scope of fraud in these programs," he told lawmakers they needed to work on "right sizing us to match the fraud landscape."

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