Finally, DoJ pursues COVID-19 relief fraudsters
Making good on President Biden's State of the Union promise to crack down on COVID-19 relief fraudsters, the Department of Justice announced last week the appointment of associate deputy attorney general Kevin Chambers as the director of COVID-19 fraud enforcement. To date, the DoJ has brought criminal charges against more than 1,000 individuals, alleging the theft of more than $1 billion. What's more, total losses are expected to top $8 billion thanks to groups and individuals who stole money from the federal government's multi-trillion COVID-19 relief bonanza.
That $8 billion may be just the tip of the iceberg of fraud and loss from the $5 trillion sent to Americans in the form of so-called "pandemic assistance." State legislators should know that constituents may not be satisfied to see a few greedy hucksters locked up if billions in COVID-19 relief funds are being poured down a rat hole.
Attorney General Merrick Garland promises, "We will continue to hold accountable those who seek to exploit the pandemic for personal gain, to protect vulnerable populations, and to safeguard the integrity of taxpayer-funded programs."
That may well miss the fact that state legal pandemic relief has taken on the discipline of an open bar at a wedding party. The money, decoupled from labor and unrestricted by oversight, has fueled a bender that helped crank inflation to a 40-year high. Now, with much of that money flowing beyond Washington, D.C., states, counties, and cities have bellied up to the bar to find ways to spend the $745 billion remaining in state and local funding.
For instance, $12.5 million is heading to spruce up a stadium for the Hudson Valley Renegades, a minor league baseball stadium affiliated with the New York Yankees.
The Feeding Our Futures program in Minnesota funneled $244 million from the Department of Agriculture through the Minnesota Department of Education to a network of storefront distribution sites. The goal was to replace food that would normally be dispersed at pandemic-shuttered public schools.
Court documents paint a troubling picture of hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to a new and tiny nonprofit that went from $2.9 million in federal funding in 2017 to $197 million in 2021. One small storefront distribution site claimed to have fed 5,000 kids every day without neighbors noticing any children coming to the building. It's pretty hard to not notice 5,000 kids a day.
FBI special agent Travis Wilmer claimed in court documents that "[a]lmost none of this money was used to feed children." Despite dramatic FBI raids in January, no arrests have been made related to Feeding our Future, who claim that they have done nothing wrong. The regulations that may have flagged wrongdoing were set aside due to COVID-19 emergency orders.
It remains unclear whether Feeding Our Future broke laws. But the basic facts outlined by law enforcement show that money aimed at pandemic relief was and is being wasted or stolen. That distinction should mean less to policymakers whose job it is to protect vulnerable people and their hard-earned tax dollars.
Matt Dean (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior fellow for health care policy outreach at The Heartland Institute.