The SBA inspector general speaks at an event to announce the recovery of fraudulently obtained pandemic relief funds.

The SBA inspector general speaks at an event to announce the recovery of fraudulently obtained pandemic relief funds. Courtney Buble / GovExec

Coronavirus Roundup: The Secret Service Returned $286 Million in Fraudulently Obtained Pandemic Funds 

There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s a list of this week’s news updates and stories you may have missed.

At an event on Friday morning the Secret Service returned $286 million in fraudulently obtained COVID-19 relief funds––specifically from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program–– to the Small Business Administration. This was the result of a collaborative effort with the SBA watchdog and Justice Department.

“Initiated by the Secret Service Orlando, Florida, Field Office, the investigation revealed that the conspirators utilized third-party payment system Green Dot Bank, issuer of Green Dot debit cards, to conceal and move their criminal proceeds,” said a press release from the Secret Service. “Working with [the bank], the Secret Service was able to identify over 15,000 accounts used in the conspiracy and seize the $286 million contained in these fraudulent accounts.” Secret Service Assistant Special Agent in Charge Roy Dotson said on Friday the Secret Service and its federal, state and local partners are now working on criminal investigations related to this seizure, but he couldn’t discuss it further. 

Government Executive asked at the event how the Secret Service thinks the recently enacted legislation to extend the statute of limitations to pursue fraud cases with Economic Injury Disaster and Paycheck Protection Program loans will impact their work. This “will help immensely,” as now “we’re 30 months into pandemic fraud, so now we’re getting into the heart of investigations and this is not going to be a quick fix,” Dodson said. Today’s announcement was just “one case, so you can just think of the potential number of suspects, [the] investigations that could come out of those.” 

The Secret Service has seized over $1.4 billion in fraudulently obtained funds and helped in returning approximately $2.3 billion to state unemployment insurance programs since 2020. Also, the agency has initiated more than 3,850 pandemic related fraud investigations and inquiries. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

This week both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna submitted applications to the Food and Drug Administration for updated versions of their booster shots. The former is for individuals 12 and up and the latter is for individuals 18 and up. “The FDA is working tirelessly to evaluate the submissions to ensure the data meet FDA’s rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality so that these new boosters are available as soon as possible,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf tweeted on Thursday. “FDA will not hold a [Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee] meeting about these submissions, as the agency feels confident in the extensive discussion that was held in June. [The committee] voted overwhelmingly to include an omicron component in COVID-19 boosters. FDA has no new questions that warrant committee input.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee on immunization practices is scheduled to meet on September 1 and 2 to consider the boosters, per notice in the Federal Register. 

Moderna announced on Friday it is filing patent infringement lawsuits against Pfizer and BioNTech for their COVID vaccines and therapeutics. “We believe that Pfizer and BioNTech unlawfully copied Moderna's inventions, and they have continued to use them without permission," said Moderna Chief Legal Officer Shannon Thyme Klinger in a statement. “Outside of [92 low- and middle-income countries in the GAVI COVAX Advance Market Commitment] where vaccine supply is no longer a barrier to access, Moderna expects Pfizer and BioNTech to compensate Moderna for Comirnaty®'s ongoing use of Moderna's patented technologies.” 

When asked for comment, Pfizer provided the following statement: “Pfizer/BioNTech has not yet fully reviewed the complaint, but we are surprised by the litigation given the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine was based on BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA technology and developed by both BioNTech and Pfizer. We remain confident in our intellectual property supporting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and will vigorously defend against the allegations of the lawsuit.” BioNTech did not respond for comment. 

The Biden administration is citing a 2003 law and the COVID-19 pandemic as its legal authority to carry out its student loan forgiveness plan announced on Wednesday. “We conclude that targeting relief towards those individuals who suffered financial hardship because of COVID -19 and who otherwise satisfy the requirements of the [2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act] accords with the Act’s requirement that the waiver or modification ‘be necessary to ensure that’ student loan recipients who are ‘affected’ by a national emergency ‘are not placed in a worse position financially’ with respect to their loans as a result,” said a newly released opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel

Legal challenges are expected, as the Associated Press reported. Also, reporters  asked during briefings in recent days how the administration can justify using the pandemic as a reason for the loan forgiveness when it has touted the recent economic progress and made arguments in other matters that the pandemic is over. 

In response White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday, “we use the HEROES Act because there are going to be people, when we lift the pause [on the student loans at the end of the year, that still are going to suffer.”

In a tweet thread on Thursday, the official White House account quoted Republican lawmakers' criticism of the loan forgiveness policy with how much in Paycheck Protection Program loans they had forgiven. 

After testing negative for COVID on Tuesday, First Lady Jill Biden tested positive on Wednesday in a “rebound case.” She “has experienced no reemergence of symptoms and will remain in Delaware where she has reinitiated isolation procedures,” said Kelsey Donohue, the first lady’s deputy communications director in a statement. “The White House Medical Unit has conducted contact tracing and close contacts have been notified.”

Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report on Wednesday that they say shows “an extreme pressure campaign” by Trump administration officials on the FDA to make decisions to benefit them politically. “The Trump White House exerted extreme and inappropriate pressure on FDA to reauthorize hydroxychloroquine after it was shown to be ineffective and potentially dangerous; strong-armed FDA to deliver misleadingly positive news about convalescent plasma as a coronavirus treatment on the eve of the 2020 Republican National Convention; and blocked FDA from issuing guidance on coronavirus vaccine authorizations for weeks in an attempt to ensure that the first vaccine could be authorized before the 2020 presidential election,” said a summary of the report. 

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., ranking member of the coronavirus subcommittee and House Republican whip, blasted the Democrats in a statement saying the report is “further proof” the panel was set up to “carry out a political vendetta against former President Trump.” Additionally, “we need credible oversight, not political cover ups,” Scalise said. “When Republicans are running the House next year, we will hold the Biden administration accountable and advance solutions to prevent future government abuse and mismanagement.”

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