Washington, DC — Michael E. Horowitz, Chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) and Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Justice, testified before the House Committee on Ways and Means on Wednesday, February 8, 2023. In his testimony, Chair Horowitz discussed the PRAC’s efforts since March 2020 in fulfilling its mission of ensuring more than $5 trillion in federal pandemic relief funds were used effectively and efficiently, particularly with respect to the pandemic unemployment insurance (UI) programs created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. He also emphasized the PRAC’s commitment to using all of the tools Congress made available to hold wrongdoers accountable.
“Pandemic fraud and UI fraud in particular is a problem that affects multiple programs across multiple layers of government, so monitoring it requires a coordinated all-of-government effort,” said Chair Horowitz. “We continue to work with federal prosecutors to ensure that those who steal from these important programs are held fully accountable.”
In his testimony at the hearing, Chair Horowitz also emphasized:
The volume of UI claims during the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges within state UI programs.
Congress responded in the CARES Act to widespread pandemic-induced unemployment by expanding UI benefits through creation of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs.
As Chair Horowitz noted in his testimony, the massive increase in UI claims in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic strained State Workforce Agencies (SWAs) whose UI programs were already considered high risk due to outdated information technology (IT) systems and the lack of qualified emergency staffing. In addition, the CARES Act increased the risk of improper payments by allowing claimants to self-certify their eligibility, which is contrary to what occurs in traditional UI programs and opens the door to significant fraud.
To combat these issues, Chair Horowitz shared best practices that should be replicated in future emergency aid programs, to include "increased use of cross-matching of data between state agencies; improved coordination between SWAs and state and federal law enforcement, local Inspectors General (IGs), and state auditors; more effective use of enterprise risk management; increased IT modernization efforts; and the use of advanced data analytics to build multi-layer fraud defenses, including identity verification tools."
Improved data access and data sharing would enhance watchdogs’ ability to conduct timely investigations.
Timely access to data within the federal government and improved data sharing among states are critical to watchdogs’ ability to conduct independent oversight and detect potential fraud.
To obtain access to state-level data after the pandemic hit, DOL OIG took unprecedented steps by issuing subpoenas to 54 states and U.S. territories. In August 2021—nearly 18 months after FPUC, PUA, and PEUC began—DOL granted DOL OIG access to pandemic-related unemployment insurance program data. This underscores the need for timelier and more comprehensive data sharing within the federal government and with its state and local partners.
Legislative action could assist the PRAC in holding accountable wrongdoers who defrauded pandemic UI programs.
Chair Horowitz recognized the 117th Congress for passage of H.R. 7352 and H.R. 7334, legislation that enhances the PRAC, IG community, and law enforcement partners’ efforts to fight fraud in small business loan programs.
These bipartisan bills, signed into law in August 2022, expanded the statute of limitations from 5 to 10 years for all forms of Paycheck Protection Program loan fraud and all COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loan fraud, which allows investigators additional time to pursue those who defrauded these aid programs. Similarly, the PRAC supports extensions to the statute of limitations for fraud in other pandemic programs, including unemployment insurance.
“Extending the statute of limitations for fraud associated with pandemic-related UI programs will help ensure investigators and prosecutors have time to effectively pursue and hold accountable those groups and individuals who defrauded these programs,” said Chair Horowitz.
The PRAC’s ability to provide deep transparency into pandemic assistance and key insights is the result of collaborative efforts across all levels of government.
Through close partnerships with federal, state, and local governments, the PRAC has highlighted best practices for minimizing fraud risks within state UI programs, such as introducing upfront identity verification tools and updating fraud indicators and filters.
The PRAC’s coordination efforts include adding state-level expertise to its oversight team, meeting weekly with leadership in the Office of Management and Budget and the American Rescue Plan implementation officials, and participating in more than two dozen meetings focused on agency-specific pandemic relief programs.
“This process of engagement by senior Executive Branch and agency officials with IGs and the PRAC has become a model for how to manage large-scale emergency spending initiatives and balance the need for robust independent oversight with timely program implementation,” said Chair Horowitz.
The PRAC was established by the CARES Act to promote transparency and support independent oversight of the funds provided by the CARES Act and other related emergency spending bills. In addition to its coordination and oversight responsibilities, the PRAC is tasked with supporting efforts to “prevent and detect fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement [and] mitigate major risks that cut across program and agency boundaries.”
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