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New panel to oversee relief spending already facing controversy

An oversight committee created to root out fraud and abuse as trillions of federal dollars are spent to combat the coronavirus launched its website and announced its executive director on Monday, the first public action by a panel already ensnared in controversy.

The independent committee was created to oversee spending under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress approved and President Trump signed into law a month ago. The group, whose mandate has expanded to include almost $500 billion approved Friday, is comprised of independent inspectors general from more than a dozen federal agencies.

Investigations are already underway into airlines receiving federal support, the validity of tax credits claimed by businesses, the accuracy of economic stimulus payments, and the Health and Human Services Department’s adherence to safety protocols during the outbreak, according to the website.

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Robert A. Westbrooks was named executive director. He “most recently served as the Inspector General for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation where he helped protect the retirement benefits of 35 million American workers and retirees,” according to the statement.

The effort to help small businesses retain workers, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, came under fire after big restaurant chains like Potbelly Corp. and Ruth’s Chris Steak House got loans, while many mom-and-pop operations were left stranded. Both businesses have since said they won’t accept the stimulus funding.

Even before the group was fully operating, Trump challenged and undercut the power of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, indicating contentious times ahead to hold agencies accountable for spending and managing a bailout program for small businesses.

On April 7, Trump removed an experienced inspector general, Glenn Fine, who was appointed to chair the committee. Fine had been acting inspector general of the Defense Department. But Trump designated a new acting IG at the Pentagon, thereby demoting Fine and making him ineligible to chair the committee.

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Westbrooks, the new executive director, was appointed to the watchdog role at the pension agency during the Obama administration, creating another potential target for Trump, who has criticized inspectors general named under his predecessor as prejudiced against him.

Trump also has sought to undercut oversight powers Congress provided in the CARES Act. In a signing statement accompanying the act, Trump said he doesn’t recognize a mandatory requirement that congressional leaders help select leaders of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Trump also said a newly established inspector general at the Treasury Department to manage investigations of pandemic-related loans doesn’t have the power to issue reports to Congress without presidential supervision.

Trump has repeatedly clashed with independent federal watchdogs, challenging their findings and implying they might have a political agenda. In early April, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, inspector general for the US intelligence agencies.

Atkinson had notified Congress about a whistle-blower complaint about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, which eventually led to Trump being impeached.

“The recent flurry of presidential actions to undercut and sideline IGs as his administration spends historic amounts of public resources to address the pandemic should give Congress and every American grave concern about whether these resources will be used apolitically and in the public interest,” according to an April 9 article in The Hill written by Stuart Eizenstat, who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and Anne Pence, who served in Republican and Democratic administrations.