The Pandemic Watchdog is Looking for More Time, Money and Authority
The office is floating a draft bill that would keep it open an additional five years, provide more consistent funding and expand the special IG’s jurisdiction.
Over two years after a special watchdog was installed to oversee certain COVID-19 relief funds, the office is looking for a member of Congress to take up its draft bill that would give it more money and time, and broaden its jurisdiction.
The Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery was one of the three oversight entities created by the 2020 CARES Act to look into how the Treasury Department spends certain coronavirus-related loans and investments. Brian Miller, who has held a number of other high-level positions in government since 1992, such as IG at the General Services Administration, was confirmed as special IG in June 2020 after coming under some scrutiny after President Trump nominated him for the position due to his work in the Trump White House Counsel’s office. In its short existence, the pandemic IG office has dealt with turf battles, funding shortages and starting up a new office amid a pandemic.
“There is so much fraud in the CARES Act programs that any Office of Inspector General with jurisdiction should be at full court press,” Miller told Government Executive. “SIGPR wants to be a force multiplier in that fight against fraud, not duplicate efforts. It’s not about who gets credit, it is about bringing fraudsters to justice.”
The office has drafted a bill titled the “Strengthening Pandemic Relief Oversight Act” that would extend the special IG’s term of existence by five years, put the watchdog unit into the annual appropriations cycle and restore its jurisdiction to what it was before an Office of Legal Counsel opinion narrowed it in spring 2021. These are all things Miller has asked for before.
The office is in the process of looking for a sponsor on Capitol Hill. No official sponsor had signed on as of Monday, but overall, “the members of Congress and their staff with whom we spoke have a bicameral and bipartisan wish to stamp out fraud in CARES Act programs,” Miller told Government Executive.
“Dozens of investigations are in the pipeline, and some have already turned into prosecutions. It takes time to work complex investigations and see them through to completion,” Miller said, in explaining why he is calling for the five-year extension. “As loans within our jurisdiction mature, many with substantial balloon payments due in 2025, so does the potential for defaults resulting from fraud: we may therefore sunset just when we are most needed. Ironically, the funding and extension we seek from Congress to exist past 2025 may depend on the visibility of our results, yet we need the time and funding to produce the results the American people deserve and that Congress intended when it passed the CARES Act.”
Miller noted in his office's quarterly report published in April that the special IGs for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the reconstructions in Iraq and Afghanistan had more than a single term to complete their work.
Steady funding has also been an issue. The pandemic IG was given an $8 million cash infusion as part of the fiscal 2022 spending package, after expressing concern that the office would run out of money by July, but is still looking to be included in the annual appropriations process for more consistency.
Miller asked the Justice Department for a legal opinion in spring 2021 because he said his office was being met with “resistance” from the Treasury Department and Treasury IG in the previous months in trying to obtain critical data and information and work together on oversight initiatives.
At the time, Miller said the limited jurisdiction would lead to “reduced oversight of these programs” and called on Congress to “pass legislation to clarify SIGPR’s mandate to provide oversight of the Coronavirus Relief Fund, Payroll Support Program, and other pandemic-related programs managed by the Secretary of the Treasury.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo, introduced a bill back in March that would restore SIGPR's jurisdiction and provide the office with $25 million per year for the next three years. So far, the bill was just referred to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and there is no companion version in the House. Hawley’s office and the committee to which the bill was referred did not respond for comment.