Over $10 billion in fraudulent pandemic relief funds returned to federal government


(The Center Square) – Ahead of a congressional subcommittee hearing being held Tuesday, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis announced that over $10 billion worth of fraudulent payments made through federal pandemic relief programs has been recovered and returned to the federal government.

“These relief programs were vital to helping Americans in need during the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic,” U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee, said. “However, as the Select Subcommittee reported last year, the Trump Administration failed to take basic steps to prevent expansive fraud against them. Under the Biden Administration, federal investigative and law enforcement agencies have been working hard to undo the damage and reclaim funds for the American taxpayer.”

However, federal agents under the Trump administration were investigating fraudulent payments as early as July 2020, within months of CARES Act funding first being distributed. The U.S. Department of Labor found that there were initially $26 billion worth of improper unemployment payments made as a result of CARES Act funding. Reports by the Office of Inspector General found that through multiple federal agencies, more than $100 billion worth of federal pandemic relief money was used for fraudulent purposes.

Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, the subcommittee released new data obtained from the Department of Justice, Small Business Administration Office of Inspector General, Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, and United States Secret Service. It includes up-to-date figures on federal investigative and law enforcement agency efforts to reclaim fraudulently obtained taxpayer funds.

It reports that over $10 billion of fraudulent payments have been returned to the federal government, primarily paid through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (COVID-19 EIDL).

Federal officials from U.S. Attorneys offices and the Department of Justice have criminally charged 1,481 defendants across 1,003 cases involving more than $1.07 billion in losses from PPP, COVID-19 EIDL, and Pandemic Unemployment Insurance (PUI), Clyburn announced.

There are at least 1,150 current ongoing OIG investigations into PPP, COVID-19 EIDL, and PUI fraud covering more than $2.4 billion in losses, according to the newly released data.

OIG investigations have also led to at least 1,200 indictments related to pandemic-related fraud, which have led to over 950 arrests and more than 450 convictions.

USSS investigators also opened more than 1,000 COVID-19 fraud-related cases in the past two years. Their efforts led to the seizure of more than $1 billion and roughly $86 million returned to crime victims.

Officials from the DOJ’s Fraud Enforcement, SBA, USSS, and others will testify about their efforts before the subcommittee on Tuesday.

Their discussion on federal efforts to prevent, detect and prosecute pandemic relief fraud will be livestreamed on YouTube and the Select Subcommittee website.

Problems with fraudulent payments made by federal agencies have been ongoing for many years. Most recently, in October 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor submitted a legislative package to Congress including proposed legislative changes that would help address Unemployment Insurance program integrity and high improper UI improper payment rates. These proposals were included in each of Trump’s budget requests since fiscal 2018, but Congress didn’t adopt them.

Additionally, improper payments made by federal government agencies totaled $175 billion in 2019, or $15 billion per month, according to PaymentAccuracy.gov, a website of the U.S. government. This was in addition to $2.25 trillion worth of taxpayer money spent on improper payments from 2004 to 2018, according to a Congressional Research Service brief on the Improper Payments Act.

Open the Books, a nonprofit government spending watchdog, has regularly published examples of federal waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money. In 2020, it analyzed $2.3 trillion mistakenly spent by the U.S. government since 2004. Its auditors found that the most wasteful federal programs were Medicaid, Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit. In these three programs alone, 69% of the money spent – $121 billion – were improper payments, according to Open the Books.

Dead people received $871.9 million in mistaken payments through Medicaid, Social Security, federal pensions and farm subsidies because agencies primarily failed to verify deaths. Over four years, money sent to dead people has cost taxpayers $2.8 billion.

Open the Books CEO Adam Andrzejewski told The Center Square that trillions of improper payments are “a stunning example of institutionalized incompetence.”

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