Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies on Capitol Hill on May 12.

Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies on Capitol Hill on May 12. Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

Justice Department Launches New COVID-19 Fraud Task Force

President Biden has been encouraging strong oversight of relief funds. 

The attorney general announced on Monday a new task force to combat COVID-19 fraud that will involve multiple agencies. 

Over the last 14 months as the federal government has been spending trillions of dollars on pandemic and economic relief, one area of major concern and focus has been waste, fraud and abuse of funds, especially with the Small Business Administration's programs and stimulus payments. President Biden has been encouraging rigorous oversight of funds, invoking what he championed in 2009 when former President Obama put him in charge of implementing the Recovery Act.

“The task force will augment and incorporate the existing coordination mechanisms within the department and will continue to work in close coordination with other efforts underway throughout the federal government,” said a press release from the Justice Department. “It will work closely with the department’s interagency partners to share information and insights gained from prior enforcement experience, in order to reduce the potential threat to the American people and COVID-19 relief, and will help agencies tasked with administering these significant relief programs increase their fraud prevention efforts by providing any appropriate information law enforcement learns about fraud trends and illicit tactics.” 

Also, the task force will “bolster efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminals, prevent the exploitation of government assistance for personal and financial gain, and recover stolen funds.” The release does not mention any specific coronavirus relief funding packages. 

The deputy AG will organize and lead the task force, which will include representation from Justice’s Criminal and Civil divisions, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, and FBI. Its interagency partners will include the Labor, Treasury and Homeland Security departments, Small Business Administration, Special Inspector General for Pandemic Relief, Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and others.

“The Department of Justice will use every available federal tool—including criminal, civil and administrative actions—to combat and prevent COVID-19 related fraud,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “We look forward to working with our federal government colleagues to bring to justice those who seek to profit unlawfully from the pandemic.” The Justice Department said it also needs the public to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the National Center for Disaster Fraud.

The Justice Department under President Trump took a series of related actions to combat coronavirus crime and fraud.

Biden released a statement on Monday night reiterating his call for “fastidious oversight” of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted in March and saying he welcomed the Justice Department’s new task force.

“In addition, I have directed my [American Rescue Plan] implementation coordinator to build on his team’s ongoing efforts by launching a new Initiative on Identity Theft Prevention and Public Benefits,” Biden said. “Together with the Office of Management and Budget, this team will bring a whole-of-government approach to develop recommendations to help stop these criminal syndicates before they can prey on relief funds that belong to the American people.”

He said the team should work with the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, Government Accountability Office, and relevant agency IGs and state auditors in developing the recommendations. 

In a recent interview with Government Executive, Brian Miller, special IG for pandemic recovery (a position established in the CARES Act), said it was a “disappointment” his office was not specifically mentioned in the American Rescue Plan. 

This was on the heels of his office releasing a report alleging “turf battles” with the Treasury IG over CARES Act oversight, which prompted him to ask the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for a legal opinion (which ultimately limited his jurisdiction).

Treasury Department and Treasury IG officials previously gave statements to Government Executive about their commitments to oversight in pandemic programs in response to the ruling.