Watchdogs, White House at odds over scrutiny of pandemic aid

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When Congress approved $2 trillion pandemic aid in March, many Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed on safeguards against fraud and abuse to ensure that companies receiving the money use it to save American jobs.

But the Trump administration has advised agencies that they can largely ignore reporting requirements in the legislation designed to help a newly created watchdog group track how the money is spent, according to public documents and four people with knowledge of the matter.

Several lawmakers, nonprofit organizations and members of the watchdog group – the Pandemic Recovery Accountability Committee (PRAC) – say the avoidant approach proposed by the White House would violate the law. They contend it would keep taxpayers in the dark as to whether businesses such as airlines or hospitals use the cash to save jobs and keep the lights on – as Congress intended – or, for instance, spend it on management bonuses and other perks.

The dispute between the accountability committee and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is the latest sign of tensions between independent investigators tasked with overseeing taxpayer money and Trump administration officials who have resisted calls for greater transparency in several key relief programs.

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March, calls for organizations getting more than $150,000 in aid to document their spending to the dispensing federal agencies – who in turn must report that information to the accountability committee so it can scan for signs of fraud and abuse. The act requires recipients to report spending quarterly, along with a detailed description of the projects supported and the number of jobs created or preserved.

In April, however, the White House budget office wrote a memo to federal agencies telling them it did not believe such detailed reporting was required to comply with the law. The memo, a public document reviewed by Reuters, advised agencies that they could avoid the administration burden and satisfy the law instead by following “existing reporting requirements” for all federal spending, with “minimal modifications.”

The accountability committee consists of independent watchdogs, known as inspectors general, from 21 federal offices. Created by Congress, the committee provides findings to both lawmakers and the administration. While Trump cannot disband the body, he can and already has ousted some of its members by removing them from their agency inspector general roles. [L1N2D20KU]

The White House budget office declined to comment on why it told federal agencies they could rely on existing data legislative reporting requirements or why the accountability committee doesn’t need new, detailed spending information. In statement to Reuters, the office said it is working with the committee and inspectors general to “ensure proper reporting and transparency.”

Robert Westbrooks, director of the PRAC, said the White House directive did not appear to meet the CARES Act reporting requirements. He said the PRAC was talking regularly with the White House budget office to address data gaps, but declined to elaborate on those talks.

Some PRAC members and some lawmakers, including those on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, have privately pressed the White House budget office to comply with the law, according to a committee aide with knowledge of the discussions and another person who had been briefed on the matter.

“Americans deserve to know where their hard earned tax dollars are going,” said Senator Gary Peters, the lead Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is pushing for transparency and accountability measures.

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