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The Great Grift: 5 things to know about how COVID-19 relief aid was stolen or wasted


Nepalnews
2023 Jun 13, 7:42, WASHINGTON
A sheet of uncut $100 bills is inspected during the printing process at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Western Currency Facility in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 24, 2013. (AP Photo)

The greatest grift in U.S. history was brazen, even simple. Criminals and gangs grabbed the money. So did a U.S. soldier in Georgia, the pastors of a defunct church in Texas, a former state lawmaker in Missouri, and a roofing contractor in Montana.

Over the last three years, thieves plundered billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief aid to combat the worst pandemic in a century and stabilize an economy in free fall.

Here are some key takeaways from an Associated Press analysis of what may have been stolen or wasted.

HOW MUCH WAS STOLEN?

An Associated Press analysis found that fraudsters potentially stole more than $280 billion in COVID-19 relief funding; another $123 billion was wasted or misspent. Combined, the loss represents a jarring 10% of the $4.2 trillion the U.S. government has so far disbursed in COVID-relief aid.

That number is sure to grow as investigators dig deeper into thousands of potential schemes.

There are myriad reasons for the staggering loss. Investigators and outside experts say the government, in seeking to quickly spend trillions in relief aid, conducted too little oversight during the pandemic’s early stages and instituted too few restrictions on applicants. In short, they say, the grift was just way too easy.

The U.S. government has charged more than 2,230 defendants with pandemic-related fraud crimes and is conducting thousands of investigations.

The pilfering was wide but not always as deep as the eye-catching headlines about cases involving many millions of dollars. But all of the theft, big and small, illustrate an epidemic of scams and swindles at a time America was grappling with overrun hospitals, school closures and shuttered businesses. Since the pandemic began in early 2020, more than 1.13 million people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Donald Trump signs the coronavirus stimulus relief package, at the White House in Washington, on March 27, 2020, accompanied by, from left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., House Minority Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo)
President Donald Trump signs the coronavirus stimulus relief package, at the White House in Washington, on March 27, 2020, accompanied by, from left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., House Minority Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo)

WHERE DID SCAM ARTISTS GET THE MONEY?

Before leaving office, former President Donald Trump approved emergency aid measures totaling $3.2 trillion, according to figures from the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan authorized the spending of another $1.9 trillion. About a fifth of the $5.2 trillion has yet to be fully paid out, according to the committee’s most recent accounting.

Never has so much federal emergency aid been injected into the U.S. economy so quickly. “The largest rescue package in American history,” U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told Congress.

WHAT AGENCIES WERE HIT THE HARDEST?

The health crisis thrust the Small Business Administration, an agency that typically gets little attention, into an unprecedented role. In the seven decades before the pandemic struck, for example, the SBA had doled out $67 billion in disaster loans.

When the pandemic struck, the agency was assigned to manage two massive relief efforts --the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Paycheck Protection programs, which would swell to more than a trillion dollars. SBA’s workforce had to get money out the door, fast, to help struggling businesses and their employees. COVID-19 pushed SBA’s pace from a walk to an Olympic sprint. Between March 2020 and the end of July 2020, the agency granted 3.2 million COVID-19 economic injury disaster loans totaling $169 billion, according to an SBA inspector general’s report, while at the same time implementing the huge new Paycheck Protection Program.

In haste, guardrails to protect federal money were dropped. Prospective borrowers were allowed to “self-certify” that their loan applications were true. The CARES Act also barred SBA from looking at tax return transcripts that could have weeded out shady or undeserving applicants, a decision eventually reversed at the end of 2020.


WHAT COULD THE U.S. GOVERNMENT HAVE DONE BETTER TO COMBAT FRAUD?

Horowitz criticized the government’s failure early on to use the “Do Not Pay” Treasury Department database, designed to keep government money from going to debarred contractors, fugitives, felons or people convicted of tax fraud. Those reviews, he said, could have been done quickly.

In less than a few days, a week at most, Horowitz said, SBA might have discovered thousands of ineligible applicants.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

On politically divided Capitol Hill, lawmakers have not put the pandemic behind them and are engaged in a fierce debate over the success of the relief spending and who’s to blame for the theft.

Too much government money, Republicans argue, breeds fraud, waste and inflation. Democrats have countered that all the financial muscle from Washington saved lives, businesses and jobs.

Republicans and Democrats did, however, did find common ground last year on bills to year to give the federal government more time to catch fraudsters. Biden in August signed legislation to increase the statute of limitations from five to 10 years on crimes involving the two major programs managed by the SBA.

The extra time will help federal prosecutors untangle pandemic fraud cases, which often involve identity theft and crooks overseas. But there’s no guarantee they’ll catch everyone who jumped at the chance for an easy payday. They’re busy, too, with crimes unrelated to pandemic relief funds.

Gene Sperling, the White House American Rescue Plan coordinator, said any future crisis that requires government intervention doesn’t have to be a choice between helping people in need and stopping fraudsters.

READ ALSO:

The Great Grift 5 things to know covid-19 Relief aid Stolen wasted pandemic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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