House Republicans launch fraud probe into billions in COVID pandemic aid funds

The Republican-led House Oversight Committee on Wednesday will begin its investigation into the Biden administration and hold a hearing on COVID aid funds spent during the pandemic, which Republicans say were a “prescription for waste, fraud and abuse” and ignored by them have been Democrats for the last two years of Biden’s administration.

“We owe it to the American people to get to the bottom of the greatest theft of American taxpayers’ money in history,” Republican Chairman James Comer of Kentucky will tell the committee, according to prepared remarks shared with ABC News.

“We need to find out where this money went, how much ended up in the hands of scammers or ineligible participants and what should be done to ensure this never happens again,” Comer is expected to say in his opening statement.

About $5 trillion was allocated under the Trump and Biden administrations for pandemic response and recovery, and nearly 90% of that had been spent as of last November, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The committee intends to evaluate this money, which has largely been given as grants, loans and unemployment insurance, to “ensure that these funds have been appropriately used in response to the pandemic and have not been wasted on ineligible payees or unrelated matters.” so Comer remarks.

The committee will hear from witnesses from three impartial groups that prosecuted COVID-era scams on Wednesday, each finding billions of dollars stolen from programs designed to help people at the height of the pandemic.

One of those groups, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, reported Monday that over $5 billion in pandemic aid meant to reach small businesses suffering from COVID-19 shutdowns may have been eaten up by scammers instead.

The report found that in a rush to get help at the door, the Small Business Administration awarded billions of dollars under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) to applicants who used Social Security numbers, which ultimately didn’t work. Do not match the person applying.

“We found that 69,000 is questionable [social security numbers] were used to secure $5.4 billion in pandemic loans and that another 175,000 are questionable [social security numbers] were used in applications that were not paid or approved,” Michael Horowitz, chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), is expected to tell the oversight committee Wednesday, according to prepared remarks.

The proper checks and balances were not in place in a timely manner, the PRAC noted, but there was intense pressure to quickly inject huge amounts of cash into companies teetering on the brink due to COVID-19 disruptions.

The result has been that many pandemic relief programs have been subject to fraud.

That conclusion is echoed by David Smith, deputy director of the Office of Investigations within the US Secret Service, who has overseen the criminal investigation into COVID-aid fund fraud.

“My colleagues and I have seen and fought the full spectrum of pandemic-related fraud,” Smith is expected to say before the committee, according to a copy of his remarks shared with ABC News.

“From N-95 mask systems with no delivery to synthetic accounts used in identity theft to apply for millions of dollars in loans. From medical facilities hit by ransomware attacks at the height of the pandemic to prison inmates filing for unemployment benefits,” Smith is expected to say.

And while “similar dynamics” have been seen in other major relief efforts and natural disasters that present ample opportunities for fraud and fraud, the money stolen amid COVID has been “substantial,” Smith will say.

The Secret Service has seized more than $1.43 billion in funds stolen from scammers, Smith said, in 2,300 investigations into unemployment insurance fraud and 2,900 investigations into business loans and grants.

More than 1,000 people have also been convicted, forced to return money or charged with cheating on the programs, though that work is ongoing, according to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro of the Government Accountability Office, who will also be a witness before the oversight committee on Wednesday.

Just over 1,000 people have pleaded guilty and 38 people have been convicted of fraud in COVID-19 relief programs, Dodaro is expected to tell the committee.

“We found a number of internal control deficiencies in a variety of programs and made many recommendations that the agencies are implementing,” Dodaro is expected to say.

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