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Pandemic Watchdog Activates Site to Track Trillions in Spending

April 27, 2020, 9:07 PM

An oversight committee created to root out fraud and abuse within the trillions of federal dollars being spent to combat coronavirus launched its website and announced its executive director on Monday, the first public action by a panel already ensnared in controversy.

The independent committee was created to oversee spending under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress approved and President Donald Trump signed into law a month ago. The group, whose mandate has expanded to include almost $500 billion approved on Friday, is comprised of independent inspectors general from more than a dozen federal agencies.

Investigations are already underway looking into airlines receiving federal support, the validity of tax credits claimed by businesses, the accuracy of the economic stimulus payments and the Health and Human Services Department’s adherence to safety protocols during the outbreak, according to the website.

Robert A. Westbrooks was named the panel’s executive director. He “most recently served as the Inspector General for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation where he helped protect the retirement benefits of 35 million American workers and retirees,” according to the statement.

The effort to help small businesses retain their workers, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, has come under fire after big restaurant chains like Potbelly Corp. and Ruth’s Chris Steak House got loans, while many mom-and-pop firms were left stranded. Both businesses have since said they won’t accept the stimulus funding.

Potbelly Joins Shake Shack in Returning U.S. Emergency Loan

Even before it was fully operating, Trump had challenged and undercut the power of the group, officially known as the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, indicating contentious times ahead to hold agencies accountable for spending and managing a bailout program for small businesses.

On April 7, Trump removed an experienced inspector general who was appointed to chair the committee. The career official, Glenn Fine, had been serving as the acting inspector general of the Defense Department. But Trump designated a new acting IG at the Pentagon, thereby demoting Fine and making him ineligible to chair the committee.

Westbrooks, the new executive director, was appointed to the watchdog role at the pension agency during President Barack Obama’s administration, creating another potential target for Trump, who has criticized inspectors general named under his predecessor as prejudiced against him.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the role “critical” for oversight in a statement Monday and said that Trump should not attempt to interfere with the panel’s independence.

“It is vital that Executive Director Westbrooks exercise his full authority to hold the Administration accountable to the law and ensure that this relief package is used to protect Americans’ lives and livelihoods, not to pad the pockets of corporations and the wealthiest few,” according to the statement.

Yet Trump has already sought to undercut several oversight powers provided by Congress in the CARES Act. In a signing statement accompanying the act, the president said he doesn’t recognize a mandatory requirement that congressional leaders help select the leadership of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Treasury Watchdog

Trump also said a newly established inspector general within the Treasury Department to manage investigations of pandemic-related loans doesn’t have the power to issue reports to Congress without presidential supervision.

Trump has repeatedly clashed with independent federal watchdogs, challenging their findings and implying they might have a political agenda. In early April, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for U.S. intelligence agencies.

Atkinson had previously notified Congress about a whistle-blower complaint about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, which eventually led to Trump being impeached.

“The recent flurry of presidential actions to undercut and sideline IGs as his administration spends historic amounts of public resources to address the pandemic should give Congress and every American grave concern about whether these resources will be used apolitically and in the public interest,” according to an April 9 article in The Hill written by Stuart Eizenstat, who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and Anne Pence, who served in Republican and Democratic administrations.

(Updates with Pelosi’s statement in ninth paragraph)

--With assistance from Billy House.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net;
Laura Davison in Washington at ldavison4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net;
Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net

Larry Liebert

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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