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Federal inspectors ask for authority to go after more COVID fraud

Inspectors general need more authority to go after fraud in the COVID-19 relief programs, the independent committee overseeing federal pandemic relief spending said Tuesday.

The agencies' watchdogs' authority to administratively prosecute fraudsters is limited to fraud of $150,000 or less from COVID-19 relief programs and the Department of Justice is too busy for cases under $1 million — a gap that must be closed, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee said.

Michael Horowitz, head of the committee and the inspector general of the Department of Justice, said the $150,000 threshold is far too low given the scope of the fraud in programs set up to help businesses and people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. He's asking Congress to modify provisions in the law on fraud committed against the federal government, to raise the maximum amount of a fraud claim that may be handled administratively to $1 million.

The request was highlighted in the committee's semiannual report to Congress released Tuesday.

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 Michael Horowitz, Inspector General of the Department of Justice, testifies during a Senate Judiciary hearing about the Inspector General's report on the FBI's handling of the Larry Nassar investigation on Capitol Hill on September 15, 2021 in Washington, DC.  GRAEME JENNINGS / Getty Images

"It can't be the case that people come away from this thinking there's a certain level of fraud that's just OK, or a certain level of improper payments that's just OK," Horowitz said in an interview with The Associated Press before the report was released. "We don't believe that as IGs, and we want to get to the bottom of that. So it's a very important tool and every dollar matters."

Out of more than $5 trillion in pandemic relief spending, more than 1 million awards under $1 million have been given out, according to the committee.

Inspectors general nationwide are focused on multi-million dollar cases of alleged fraud that are turned over to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Horowitz said he was not aware of any cases being brought for below $150,000, though he does know of cases that they would like to prosecute administratively involving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most U.S. attorneys would not pursue cases for under $1 million because they are overwhelmed with other fraud cases, he added.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is sponsoring a bill that would make the change. It has bipartisan support, including from co-sponsor Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee was created by Congress in March 2020. It brings together the inspectors general offices to oversee pandemic relief emergency spending and investigate fraud and improper payments spread out among more than 400 programs implemented by 40 federal agencies.

Its report to Congress also stressed the need to better use the data the federal government already has, and improve data collection, particularly when the prime recipient of a grant shares it with sub-recipients to follow the funding from the federal to the local level.

Billions in loans were paid to potentially ineligible recipients at the beginning of the pandemic because the Small Business Administration didn't check the Treasury Department's "do not pay" list, the report said, and billions went to applicants with foreign IP addresses. Horowitz said "simple data matching" at the agency level should've flagged hundreds of applications using the same phone number from a gas station in Texas before the committee found it.

"That shouldn't be the case, right? An agency should be able to figure that out," he said. "That's not sophisticated data analytics."

Horowitz said agencies have substantially improved their ability to verify eligibility for pandemic relief payments, but "there is still a significant way to go." That prompted the committee to set up a data analytics center, which it has asked Congress to keep in place to use when the federal government responds to future emergencies with relief spending.

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