More than 1,000 people have pleaded guilty or been convicted of federal fraud charges on countless COVID-19 relief programs that Congress created in the early days of the pandemic. And more than 600 other people and organizations face federal fraud charges.
But that’s just the beginning, according to investigators scheduled to testify Wednesday before a congressional committee as House Republicans mark the start of what they promise will be aggressive oversight of President Joe Biden’s administration.
The House Oversight and Accountability Committee is holding its first hearing in the new Congress on fraud and waste in federal pandemic spending. In total, Congress approved about $4.6 trillion in spending from six coronavirus relief bills starting in March 2020, when Donald Trump was president.
“We owe it to the American people to get to the bottom of the largest theft of American taxpayer dollars in history,” said the committee’s chairman, Congressman James Comer, R-Kentucky.
The Government Accountability Office is expected to tell the committee that the number of cases of alleged fraud is certain to rise in the coming months. For example, the Small Business Administration’s inspector general has more than 500 ongoing investigations involving loan programs designed to help businesses meet operating costs during the pandemic. The Labor Department’s inspector general continues to open at least 100 unemployment insurance fraud investigations each week.
The GAO said the more than 1,000 convictions related to COVID-19 fraud are one measure of how widespread it has been. It is not known how much money has been lost to fraud, the GAO also said, but in December it reported that an extrapolation of Labor Department data suggested more than $60 billion in fraudulent unemployment insurance payments during the pandemic. But the GAO also cautioned that such extrapolation has inherent limitations and should be interpreted with caution.
Still, lawmakers are eager to learn how many thefts have occurred and what can be done to stop it in future emergencies.
“We need to determine where that money went, how much ended up in the hands of fraudsters or inappropriate actors, and what needs to be done to ensure that this never happens again,” Comer said.
About 20 inspectors general are working together to investigate pandemic relief spending. Michael Horowitz, who chairs a congressional committee created in March 2020 to lead oversight of COVID-19 spending, is also scheduled to testify.
In his prepared remarks, Horowitz said the commission issued a fraud alert this week about the use of more than 69,000 questionable Social Security numbers to obtain $5.4 billion in pandemic loans and grants.
Also testifying was David Smith, assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service’s Bureau of Investigation, who predicted that efforts to recover stolen assets and hold criminals accountable for pandemic fraud will continue in the coming years.