WASHINGTON – Federal workers face serious risks during the coronavirus pandemic performing jobs such as guarding prisoners, delivering mail or providing nursing care. But teleworking has also led to problems, such as delays processing millions of paper tax forms or potentially exposing national secrets to hackers.
Just spending $2.2 trillion as quickly as Congress directed in response to the pandemic opened doors for waste, fraud and abuse.
These are among the potential problems that a group of inspectors general warned federal agencies to avoid in a 92-page report Wednesday called “Top Challenges Facing Federal Agencies: Covid-19 Emergency Relief and Response Efforts.”
“Part of our mandate is to not only detect waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement, but hopefully prevent it from happening on the front end,” Robert Westbrooks, executive director of the inspectors general group called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, told USA TODAY. “This is a road map for agency managers and for policy makers to help them address some common issues.”
Congress created the committee of 20 inspectors general to track the pandemic response because of the unprecedented size and speed of the response to the pandemic.
“Inspectors general continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the more than $2.4 trillion in emergency coronavirus response spending,” said Michael Horowitz, the inspector general for the Justice Department and acting chairman of the committee.
Dispute over oversight
Just weeks after funding was approved, a dispute arose about the extent of oversight. The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee created the website pandemic.oversight.gov to provide information for how pandemic funds were being spent.
But the panel notified lawmakers by letter June 11 that the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget contend the law’s transparency requirements don’t apply to $1.1 trillion in spending, including $670 billion for small business loans and $454 billion for loan guarantees and investments in businesses and local governments.
If the programs weren’t subject to public reporting, that could raise questions about inspectors general overseeing the spending, Horowitz and Westbrooks told top lawmakers on the government oversight and spending committees.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has refused to disclose the list of companies that received small business loans. But Mnuchin said Monday in a tweet that he would discuss with lawmakers how to strike “the appropriate balance for proper oversight.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, said the administration seemed to be arguing over loopholes after signaling strong support for inspectors general.
“They seem to be saying one thing while doing exactly the opposite,” Maloney said in a statement Monday. “If the Trump Administration is committed to full cooperation and transparency with taxpayer dollars, it is unclear why it is manufacturing legal loopholes to avoid responding to legitimate oversight requests.
The Trump administration has ousted four inspectors general since the start of April, typically after saying the president had lost confidence in each of them.
Steve Linick, who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for possible misuse of staff and also a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, was removed May 15. Christi Grimm’s removal May 1 followed her report at the Department of Health and Human Services about shortages of critical medical supplies and staff during the pandemic.
Glenn Fine was removed April 7 as acting inspector for the Defense Department, which prevented his appointment to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Michael Atkinson, who notified Congress about the whistleblower complaint about Ukraine that led to the impeachment of Trump, was removed April 3 as inspector for the intelligence community.
Westbrooks told USA TODAY that inspectors general haven’t encountered any problems getting agency data to conduct audits and investigations. The committee is “moving fast to design and build” the equipment to post data about recipients of recovery funding, he said.
“That’s our mandate and we’re moving forward with all due speed in that regard,” Westbrooks said. “If and when we encounter roadblocks, we will let the administration and Congress know.”
Congress approved the funding in four pieces of legislation that responded to the health crisis and, as the economy shut down, to deal with the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. The economy lost 20 million jobs in April and the unemployment rate spiked to 14.7%.
The largest spending bill provided $2.2 trillion on March 27, including $1,200 payments to individual taxpayers, $349 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses, $150 billion in grants to state and local governments, and $500 billion for loan guarantees and investments in businesses and state and local governments.
Another $321 billion was approved April 24 for small business loans and funding health care providers.
The first legislation included $8.3 billion for public health measures on March 4. And a measure for enhanced unemployment benefits and paid sick leave was approved March 18.
The report suggested several realms where problems could emerge, including when federal workers must continue reporting to their workplaces, challenges working from home and difficulties tracking spending.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs health care facilities, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which regulates hospitals and nursing homes, each had to cope with shortages of personal protective equipment.
The Bureau of Prisons has 160,000 prisoners, 61,000 detainees awaiting trial or sentencing and 40,000 staffers who struggle with “serious challenges” maintaining proper health care and hygiene, the report said.
The General Services Administration, which manages government real estate, had 963 cases of confirmed or suspected coronavirus in federal buildings by May 7, the report said.
More than 1,000 U.S. Postal Service workers tested positive for the virus and there have been numerous deaths, the report said. Staffing shortages could potentially lead to delays in deliveries, the report said.
If federal workers fall ill, services could suffer across the government in areas that have already seen staffing issues. The Transportation Security Administration, which screens airline passengers and their luggage, spent $75 million to train 9,000 officers in 2017, but about 20% left within six months, the report said. Customs and Border Protection consistently fell below hiring targets in hard-to-fill locations, according to a March 2019 Government Accountability Office report before the pandemic.
“Public health is paramount,” Westbrooks said. “It’s a major concern.”
Teleworking also presents challenges, as more staffers work from home. The Internal Revenue Service estimated that 13.6 million paper tax forms from businesses and individuals remained unprocessed on April 25 and 10 million pieces of mail were unopened, the report said.
Breaches in government computer systems could expose personal information and compromise national security, the report said. “These challenges are exacerbated by the pandemic,” the report said.
Tracking how the money is spent is an administrative challenge. The Small Business Administration must ensure that loans go to qualified recipients for the right reasons, the report said. The Department of Agriculture had records “that were not accurate, timely or of good quality,” according to a November inspector general report, before it received an additional $35.8 billion for pandemic relief.
But the report also noted bright spots. The Transportation Department swiftly distributed $36 billion, including $25 billion to the Federal Transit Administration and about $1 billion for Amtrak, to prevent, prepare and respond to the pandemic, the report said.
Westbrooks said the initial report offered an overview of potential problem areas and how inspectors general were coordinating to report on them.
“We’re standing up a leading edge, world class oversight office to provide accountability at historic levels of funding and we’re doing that in the middle of global pandemic,” he said. “We’ve got eyes and ears in every corner of the department.”