Watchdog out of Trump’s range triggers wave of coronavirus audits

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The GAO quickly took advantage of its perch, exploring the first missteps inherent in the launch of a multi-billion dollar law that affects all facets of American life. By the end of April, at least 30 reviews and audits of the CARES law – “commitments,” in GAO lingo – are expected to be underway, according to interviews with lead investigators.

Topics range from the government’s handling of coronavirus tests to its distribution of medical supplies, the country’s food supply to infections in nursing homes and any missteps in the distribution of emergency cash payments that began landing in millions of US bank accounts this week. The office’s chief fraud investigator said he had already received a complaint about a check deposited into the account of a deceased person.

“We are moving very quickly,” said Angela Nicole Clowers, head of the GAO health care unit. “We are an existing institution and have a lot of institutional knowledge on all of these programs. It gives us a kind of head start. “

At a time when Trump has sought to undermine almost all independent reviews of the conduct of his administration, the GAO should send most of its 3,000 investigators, experts and analysts to an arena that could make him a target of the President’s fury. And its early quiet work could soon become very noisy: the bureau is required, under the new law, to inform Congress every month and publish a bi-monthly public report on its findings.

But as an independent agency working for Congress – not the President – the GAO has much more protection against Trump. A non-partisan entity sensitive to demands for Democratic and Republican investigations, the office is also more isolated from partisan attacks than traditional congressional committee investigations that Trump has blocked on the verge of irrelevance.

Office chief, Comptroller General of the United States, Gene Dodaro, began office in 2008 and was unanimously confirmed in office in 2010 for a 15-year term, a long term intended to protect against politics that infiltrates the post.

And the GAO will enter the fray with reinforcements at its disposal: the CARES law has provided a financial boost of $ 20 million and the agency now decides where to target the funds to add listeners and experts who can help in his work.

“Within GAO, we all have policy analysts or public policy makers like me,” said Clowers, “we have nurses, we have scientists, we have engineers, we have lawyers.” You sort of cite a profession, we have it. “

With other CARES oversight mechanisms that languish – or are blocked by Trump – the GAO, at least for now, is alone.

The GAO also has the advantage of having analyzed the federal government’s response to the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, a similar effort whose successes and failures are now informing the office about the management of coronavirus surveillance.

“Things are changing and always changing as agencies change and adapt to the evolving needs of the pandemic,” said Clowers, comparing it to the frantic pace of response to the financial crisis. “We have experience in this area. We try to be as agile as possible. “

Trump already joined the GAO at the most dangerous time in his presidency, and the agency faces some hassle in its investigation.

The office probed its decision to delay $ 400 million in military aid to Ukraine and concluded that it had broken the law by failing to notify Congress of the decision. It was a politically explosive discovery even if the Republicans largely ignored it during the dismissal trial. The GAO also noted that the White House budget office and the State Department were largely uncooperative in the investigation – and that the administration could impose similar limitations on its work on coronaviruses.

Clowers argued that GAO’s strong relationships with the agencies it oversees should minimize similar resistance to coronavirus rescue surveillance. The office has already coordinated its efforts with internal agency watchdogs to ensure that they strengthen and do not duplicate others. Clowers said she spoke with inspectors general from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs.

This allowed the audits and investigations to start even if the other police bodies created in the CARES law are blocked in neutral.

Congress leaders have yet to appoint a president to head a five-member commission to oversee a new $ 500 billion treasury fund for struggling industries and businesses. Trump has appointed a White House lawyer to fill a newly created supervisory post to oversee the same $ 500 billion fund, but the choice has been controversial and will likely not be confirmed for weeks.

And earlier this month, Trump overthrew a newly created committee of existing inspectors general – with broad power to oversee the massive bailout plan – when he effectively ousted his president and let the group scramble for regroup.

President Nancy Pelosi has proposed to create a new bipartisan House committee to oversee the CARES law, but it will likely require a vote in the House for it to be established and will not be launched for weeks as Congress is suspended until ‘in early May at least. Other congressional committees hold conference calls with senior federal officials and attempt to wrest crucial information from the notoriously tight administration. But they find it extremely difficult to pressure Trump from afar.

This has left GAO, which has existed in its current form since the Nixon era, standing as the only fully operational oversight mechanism empowered to monitor the way Trump implements the new law. And it takes demands: the agency gives priority to examinations required by laws such as CARES, but it also deals with requests from congressional committees – giving equal weight to requests from both parties.

And in a rare example of unity, both Republicans and Democrats hailed the office as a valuable non-partisan supervisor who served both parties well.

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Who requested Trump’s board of management review of Ukraine’s aid, said the GAO is more important than ever in its role as monitor for coronaviruses. Notably, it has subpoena power as well as ways to circumvent Trump’s blockades by pursuing the files of states, companies, and other entities that receive funding for coronaviruses, not just the agencies that distribute it. And Van Hollen said that Congress may even consider making GAO more self-sufficient.

“We may need to strengthen the GAO arsenal in the future,” he said. “They can sue and ask for court orders to provide information, but it can be a long process. We may need to allow them to speed up this process to enforce their assignments. “

Other lawmakers point out that GAO’s real-time work is a slight lag from its normally long-term top-down reviews. The office is expected to speak with the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how it will provide its analyzes and reports to Congress and on the details it will include.

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