Robert Westbrooks explains how the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee is keeping tabs on historic levels of emergency spending.
After 26 years working at various federal oversight agencies, Robert Wesbrooks is now leading the watchdog committee established by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to ensure that pandemic relief funds are not misspent.
Twenty-one inspectors general serve on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which was formed within the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. Westbrooks was tapped in April to be the executive director.
“Every CARES Act dollar lost to fraud or waste is one less dollar available for neighbors in need or other programs,” he said. “This is a historic level of emergency spending and we are talking about your taxpayer dollars.”
The committee began work shortly after the federal government shifted to maximum telework. “There is no getting back to normal” for his staff because “from day one, we’ve had to define our normal and we’ve had oversight responsibilities that started immediately,” said Westbrooks. “Many agencies have struggled over recent years to re-define their workplaces. We had the luxury to start with a blank canvas.”
Government Executive interviewed Westbrooks late last week about the committee’s accomplishments during its first six months, its relationship with other oversight agencies, and future plans.
Can you give an overview of what your committee has accomplished since it was established in the spring?
In our first six months, committee members—the 21 PRAC inspectors general—as well as other IGs whose agencies received emergency pandemic funding have issued nearly 70 oversight reports covering a wide range of programs. Recognizing the need to provide policy makers with insights now, many of these reports are what we call agile oversight products including remotely conducted inspections, flash reports, agency program funding snapshots, management alerts, and white papers. Meanwhile, [Inspector General offices across government] and our law enforcement partners at the Justice Department and elsewhere have been aggressively pursuing fraud cases. Last week the federal law enforcement community announced a major milestone: over 50 defendants have been criminally charged with fraud involving the Payroll Protection Program. Separately, 33 inmates and accomplices were charged in a recent Pennsylvania case with illegally obtaining coronavirus unemployment benefits. Details on these and other COVID-related fraud prosecutions can be found on our website at pandemicoversight.gov.
Our website is another major PRAC accomplishment. We make available to the public details on the $2.6 trillion coronavirus relief spending including who received the funding, how much they received, and how they’re planning to spend the money. Also on our website, you can confidentially report waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement through our hotline. The PRAC also published a top pandemic challenges report, developed our five-year strategic plan, and held a virtual listening forum. We recently initiated a cross-agency project, which will examine sole source contracting involving first-time federal vendors. It has been a full sprint since March 27.
How, if at all, does PRAC work with agencies’ inspectors general, Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery Brian Miller, the congressional oversight commission and the Government Accountability Office?
We work with PRAC member inspectors general, which includes SIGPR Brian Miller, and their staff every day. Many activities are conducted through PRAC subcommittees, and the PRAC members and staff meet weekly to discuss progress on ongoing initiatives and share best practices. By statute, the PRAC may conduct its own independent oversight, collaborate with IGs, or provide support to IGs. The PRAC’s full-time staff facilitates that coordination and support. We also communicate regularly with our oversight partners at GAO to discuss ongoing work and other matters, and this relationship is vital to ensure a whole-of-government approach to oversight.
Have federal agencies been responsive to requests for documents and interviews?
Across government, IG staffs work with agency management officials on a regular basis on hundreds of audits, reviews and investigations. Only some of those are pandemic-related, of course, as inspectors general continue to be responsible for overseeing other programs and operations. There will always be some inherent tension in the oversight business, but fortunately for all we have not yet had to exercise the CARES Act requirement to report immediately to appropriate congressional committees whenever information or assistance requested by the committee or an IG is unreasonably refused or not provided.
What have been some of the challenges and successes in starting a new oversight body from scratch amid a pandemic? Is your staff teleworking?
Yes, we telework and we communicate and collaborate through tools like Microsoft Teams. The CARES Act was signed on Friday, March 27. By the following Monday, the D.C. area was under stay-at-home orders. For our staff, there is no getting back to normal. From day one, we’ve had to define our normal and we’ve had oversight responsibilities that started immediately. Many agencies have struggled over recent years to re-define their workplaces. We had the luxury to start with a blank canvas.
To recruit the best employees, provide a positive work environment, and mitigate the risk of current and future pandemic-related workplace disruptions, we designed the organization to be a distributed workforce in a virtual workplace with a minimally viable physical footprint in Washington, D.C. The risk of a future spike or second wave in the D.C. area presents us with an opportunity to create a resilient next generation virtual workplace that is able to not just endure, but thrive in adverse conditions.
What are the PRAC's goals for the next six months?
With the September 10 relaunch of our beta website, we will now be focusing more on our oversight and accountability missions. Specifically, we recently recruited a chief data officer and standing up a fraud data and analytics capability is a high priority. Also, we will be conducting additional oversight projects that cross agency or program boundaries with our PRAC member partners. We will be expanding our outreach to federal, state, and local oversight partners, industry stakeholders, and the public to share information and best practices related to CARES Act implementation.
There have been many news reports about political interference at the public health agencies (such as with the weekly reports, testing guidance and HHS communications). Are the allegations of political officials superseding the expertise of career government scientists a concern for the PRAC and/or part of your oversight work?
Our role is to ensure that the over $2.6 trillion in coronavirus spending is administered efficiently and effectively. The PRAC and our 21 member Inspectors General are looking at every angle of this spending, conducting oversight, and making recommendations for improvements. We review and consider all allegations and complaints that we receive. Our general practice is not to confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigation, but the public can view all of our current ongoing audits, inspections, and reviews on our website at pandemicoversight.gov.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
These are extraordinary times. Every CARES Act dollar lost to fraud or waste is one less dollar available for neighbors in need or other programs. This is a historic level of emergency spending and we are talking about your taxpayer dollars. We welcome all to join us at pandemicoversight.gov and help find and report suspected fraud and waste.