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Transcript for Pandemic Response and Oversight: Data Transparency, Finding Facts, Lessons Learned

Event: Pandemic Response and Oversight: Data Transparency, Finding Facts, Lessons Learned

Transcript text:

Jim Townsend:    All right. Good afternoon. My name is Jim Townsend, and I am the director of the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School. It is my pleasure to welcome you to today's webinar entitled Pandemic Response and Oversight, Data Transparency, Finding Facts, and Lessons Learned. I want to thank the co-sponsors of this event, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, or PRAC, for their outstanding work in ensuring transparency and accountability with respect to the $5 trillion that has been allocated to respond to the COVID pandemic and all of its repercussions.
    We are so pleased to be working with you on this webinar. For those unfamiliar with the Levin Center, our mission is to promote and advance bipartisan fact-based oversight and civil discourse as instruments of change. Since 2015, when the late senator, Carl Levin, established the Center here at Wayne State University Law School, we have pursued that mission through trainings and workshops in Congress and state legislatures, convenings, commentary, in the media, and the courts, and through research and scholarship. You can learn more about our work by visiting our website
    You can join in one of our listservs, or you can follow us on social media. It has been a great pleasure, as I said, to work with the members of the PRAC team in preparing this webinar, and we look forward to exploring other ways that we can collaborate to advance, open, effective, and accountable governance at all levels. After all, that is what today's webinar is all about, spreading the word about the data that can help all of us understand how the funds allocated to respond to this historic pandemic are being spent and the techniques and strategies that can help state legislators use that data and other resources to conduct oversight, identify problems, and fashion remedies that serve the best interests of their constituents.
    Without further ado, I would like to thank the executive director of PRAC, Bob Westbrook, and turn things over to Bob for some welcoming remarks. Bob.

Bob Westbrook:    Great. Thank you, Jim. I appreciate it. On behalf of the PRAC chair, Michael Horowitz, who is the, in his day job, is the Department of Justice inspector general, I want welcome everybody. And thank you for your interest in pandemic oversight. The PRAC is comprised of 21 federal inspectors general. We were created in March of ... Or the 2020. So, we're coming up on our two year anniversary. We were created to provide transparency over pandemic spending and to coordinate oversight among federal OIGs. To not just protect the money, the pandemic money, this historic $5 trillion that has gone out, but to provide transparency so that the public knows that the money is going where it's intended to go.
    We're very happy to partner with the Levin Center today on this webinar, highlighting, in particular, our improvements and enhancements and efforts in transparency with our website,, which is really designed to promote open government and transparency. Not only are we coming up on our two year anniversary, but this week happens to be sunshine week, which is a national initiative to provide transparency over government data for the public. And we're happy to have a couple of folks from our staff here who's going to walk through our website and show exactly how the state and local oversight community, as well as the members of the public can find valuable spending data on the website and blow the whistle when they suspect fraud.
    Our associate director for transparency, Rehana Mohammed, will be giving you a walk through the website here in a few minutes. Before we get to that, I just want to just quickly and briefly share with you how we're using our CARES Act authorities and new ways to create new models of coordination and oversight among the federal inspectors general. We recognize first and foremost, the importance and value of coordination. So, we've developed new thinking and new models to coordinate among the federal IGs and also to coordinate and collaborate with OMB, with GAO, and most particularly, the state and local oversight community.
    We do this in a number of ways, and we collaborate around the community in a number of ways. One of the things we're very proud of is the formation of the PRAC Fraud Task Force, which is the first time the federal IG community has used a tool like this, where we've been able to share the broad PRAC umbrella jurisdiction over pandemic spending. We've been able to share that jurisdiction with OIG agents from a variety of agencies. In addition to their normal agency specific investigations they're working, they have been empowered or deputized to work broader investigations. Right now, if you read the news, you know that there's a heavy concentration and historic levels of fraud in small business lending programs.
    And that's where we're concentrating our efforts right now. We've got 43 OIG agents from 12 OIGs that have been deputized through the PRAC Fraud Task Force. We're supporting their efforts with our Pandemic Analytics Center of Excellence, which we may be talking about here shortly on how we're using, we call it the PACE, and how we're using that to share data, share resources, both in terms of entire datasets, but doing analytics for OIGs to support their mission, and also providing talent to the OIGs. We created a Data Science Fellows program. We've got 15 or so Data Science Fellows placed with the OIGs.
    We're also interacting and collaborating with our state and local partners through quarterly briefing and listening posts. And with our quarterly briefings in particular, it's important for us that we share the lessons learned and that the observations we're seeing as investigators, not waiting till the prosecutions are completed, but as quickly as possible, sharing observations and intelligence with state and local law enforcement and auditors. Because as we know, it's not always a law enforcement solution to fix problems. Sometimes you need the, and indeed oftentimes, the audit tool's going to be much more valuable to reach the systemic problems that are at the root cause of fraud.
    We thank again, the Levin Center for being a great partner today and for all the attendees from the state and local governments, for your commitment to transparency. Not just during sunshine week, but all year long. With that, I'm going to pass it to our wonderful associate director for outreach and engagement, Lisa Reijula. Lisa, take it away.

Lisa Reijula:    Thanks so much, Bob. Again, a big thank you to the Levin Center as our co-host and for everyone that has tuned in today. I'm grateful to have the chance today to talk to you all about how we at the PRAC are tackling this challenge of overseeing $5 trillion in federal funding in response to the pandemic. And thank you, Rehana for bringing up the slides. Then I'll turn it over to Rehana, who's our associate director of transparency, and she's going to give you a dive of all the resources and the rich data that's available to you on Next slide please.
    The pandemic hit every facet of our society, as we all know, from small business to healthcare providers, to schools. People needed support, and the money went out quickly. In response to the crisis, money went to individuals, businesses, and more in the form of grants, contracts, and direct payments. Where we stand today, the PRAC, via, is tracking more than $5 trillion in some 424 programs implemented by 44 agencies. This picture here, this is why you need robust oversight and a dedicated watchdog, to make sure that money got to the right people. And if it didn't, to hold fraudsters accountable.
    So, we at the PRAC, we have the staff of about 45 employees that supports the federal inspector general community, which is about 10,000 auditors and 34 investigators strong. Next slide, please. Let me put the PRAC in the IG communities oversight responsibilities into perspective, if I may. In 2009, in response to the then ongoing financial crisis, Congress passed an $800 billion relief package, which was the largest of its kind at the time. Here we are some 12 or so years later, and not only is the current pandemic relief effort almost 7X of that amount of money, but just one program, the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, that's accounted for $800 billion in spending.
    The PPP is just one of the 424 relief programs I mentioned that were funded to fight the pandemic. To add even more perspective, in just two weeks, or 14 days after passage of the CARES Act in March, 2020, almost half of the PPP's $800 billion was dispersed. So, there were 1.7 million loans that were about $343 billion that went out in just 14 days. The loans were given out based on assault certification. That's a huge number of loans, an incredible amount of money dispersed in a very short period of time, and issued with a lack of controls. And so we recognized that there was an urgent need to get money out to those that were in need of it, but not surprisingly, given the need and the sheer amount of funding, there's a substantial amount of fraud and improper payments that we are finding in our work and our partner IGs' work. Next slide, please.
    Rehana again, will give you a deep dive into the website, but transparency, it's core to our mission at the PRAC as was laid out by Congress in the CARES Act. That act required us to launch a public facing website within our first 30 days. We recognize that federal programs and spending is very complex. And our goal for this website is to make information more accessible and easy to understand. As Rehana will show you, it was built to ensure that you don't have to be a data expert to navigate pandemic relief funding. And there are a multitude of interactive dashboards that enable anyone to search through names and businesses that receive the PPP loan, to look through provider relief fund money, and the state and local Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars. 
    Here, we're trying to give the power of the oversight to the public, empowering people to search through trillions of dollars worth of funding directly from their computer. Next slide, please. As Bob mentioned, as you all know from headlines and from your own work, there has been widespread fraud against pandemic response programs, particularly small business loan programs and unemployment insurance. As a committee of inspectors general, we are hyper focused on preventing fraud, waste, and abuse in those programs. So, I'll cover a few of our initiatives, which Bob touched on in this intro, that focus on fighting pandemic related fraud.
    First, the IG community, we are working more closely together and sharing information more than we ever have done in the past. The pandemic brought us together by necessity, and now we are working closely together in a way that we've always wanted to. We are similarly, as Bob mentioned, cooperating and developing close partnerships with our state and local counterparts and with the GAO, and I know many of you are on today's call. And the net result of all that coordination is an advance in oversight, which is ultimately what it's all about.
    Second, we are using data to advance our mission as never before. Again, that's by necessity. You cannot oversee $5 trillion worth of funding without data. There's almost 14,000 people working in the IG community, as I mentioned, but no matter how many people you have, you need data for oversight. That's why the PRAC created the Pandemic Analytics Center of Excellence, which delivers audit, analytic, and investigative support to the IG community. This is a critical part of our efforts, and to staff it up, we've brought in the best and brightest data science talent from across the country.
    We have a Data Science Fellows program, like Bob mentioned, that recruits talent from graduate and undergraduate programs across the country. We have 17 Data Science Fellows that we've trained in place with our member IGs to help them analyze pandemic release data. Our data scientists, they have access to public, non-public and commercial data sources, totaling more than 150 million lines of data. They are working on projects like developing robotic processes for automating some of the tasks associated with monitoring pandemic relief spending. They're also developing risk models to help watch dogs identify high risk recipients of different pandemic funds.
    For example, one risk modeling project for the small business administration's office of inspector general is helping them triage the huge increase in hotline complaints that they're receiving. Pre pandemic, the SBA, OIGs hotline typically received fewer than a thousand complaints per year. But during the pandemic, that increased to a rate of 6,000 complaints per week. So, our risk model helps them save time by assessing which of these complaints are potentially the most meritorious, so that elevates them to the top of the pile so that people address those recipients that are at the highest risk of fraud.
    Tools like these help our partners look across and search multiple data sources to root out issues like identity theft, multi-dipping When a recipient receives money from multiple federal sources and uses it for the same purpose, this could be an indication of multi-dipping. , or when people went after the same pandemic relief program multiple times, and fraud across multiple programs. It's just kind of work that has advanced numerous investigations. You'll see at the bottom of the slide there, that's our latest steps to date of the work of the PRAC and its member IGS. We have over 1,200 indictments, just under a thousand arrests, and 455 convictions in pandemic related fraud thus far. And we're continuing to work tirelessly with prosecutors to make sure that those who steal from these programs, which were intended to help people who really needed that help during the economic and health crisis of the pandemic, to make sure that they're held fully accountable, and that funds will be recovered for the taxpayers.
    And so there, we're going to be using all the different tools in our toolbox. That brings me to the third example that Bob shared with you, and I'll give you a little bit more detail on in the Fraud Task Force, the PRAC's Fraud Task Force. There, experience investigators from across the federal watchdog community are working together to investigate small business loan fraud cases where so much of our work has been focused. Unemployment insurance is also a focus. The task force has uncovered fraud schemes across the entire oversight community. So, whether it's overseas IP addresses that have been used to tap into these programs or fraudsters using stolen money to buy cryptocurrency.
    It's another example of some of the benefits we're seeing from cross OIG collaboration and how it's changing the way that we do business in the IG community. Finally, you'll see in the last icon on the slide there, we're focused on a problem that's been rampant in the fraud cases that we've seen and that requires significant action, and that's preventing and addressing identity fraud in pandemic benefit programs. The PRAC created a working group to address this serious challenge. Then the way that we look at it, we see that fraud involving identity theft often has three victims. First, there's the public at large because federal benefits intended to provide relief from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic go to the pockets of bad actors.
    Then second, at least some of the individuals who these programs were intended to help are going to be unable to obtain benefits because the portion was siphoned off by fraudsters. Then third, the individuals whose stolen identities were used to fraudulently get benefits, they often have to deal with onerous credit and other issues. Since last tax season, we've heard reports of people getting notices in the mail from state UI agencies that they received benefits when in fact they did not. So, the PRAC and our member IGs were working hard to protect the public from identity theft in these programs by recommending ways that agencies can close the gaps that allow fraudsters to exploit benefit programs.
    We're trying to work with agencies to place more of an emphasis on helping victims with the challenges that they're dealing with. Next slide, please. Like Bob mentioned, coordination with state and local oversight entities and other state and local officials is a top priority as you have real time information and a closer view of how funding is operating on the ground. The PRAC, we look to serve as a coordinating body, so a place where state, local, and federal groups can get together, and talk about trends and challenges and risks. From the earliest days of our efforts, we recognized that, that kind of coordination and deepening those relationships with state and local partners, with the GAO was paramount.
    Many state and local entities, if they've had federal funding, it's probably not been on this scale before. And many of these pandemic programs were brand new and the guidelines changed over time. So, we found it really valuable to have these listening posts and other mechanisms where people can gather to keep lines of communication open between state and local and federal offices. And these are open to folks that would like to join. So, we'll provide our contact information and all of these different opportunities that we mentioned. Please get in touch if they would be of interest. Next slide, please. 
    On that front, we are launching a new program, a state auditor and residence program. We think that state and local auditors, they have an invaluable view into how spending and programs are operating on the ground. So, we'd like some to join our team. State and local officials through this program will be detailed to the PRAC to deepen our coordination on pandemic related work. The job description is up on if you have folks that might be interested. Next slide, please. 
    I'll close down by telling you a little bit about the oversight part of the house. This is where we have a team that tackles some of the internal controls issues and program design questions. Our role at the PRAC is to look across the entirety of the pandemic response for common risks and themes and challenges. We're really careful to not duplicate what our member IGs are doing, but to fill gaps, coordinate ongoing reviews, and overall boost their efforts. As an example of a report like this, early last year, we pulled together six OIGs to look at testing efforts and data across agencies.
    To try to pull together a more comprehensive look at testing in the early days of the pandemic. We also focus on identifying lessons learned, lessons that cut across agency and program boundaries. For example, we've highlighted potential fraud because of self-certification in separate relief programs run by the SBA and the Department of Labor. The picture on the slide there is of our lessons learned report that we issued last September, identifying five lessons that we've learned thus far in our pandemic response work. We plan to continue to update that report as we identify additional lessons from the American Rescue Plan Programs.
    And because we think those lessons need to be shared and heeded as policy makers, respond to current and future crises with relief funding. Last slide, please. To gather views of partners, such as what we're doing today, we regularly convene outreach events. We have stakeholder listening sessions to hear how pandemic programs have impacted local communities. We've held 10 events like that to date so far. We have a virtual event series with the National Academy for Public Administration that discusses aspects of the pandemic relief efforts, such as rental assistance, broadband assistance, particularly focusing on historically underserved communities.
    We'll continue this series and other events to increase the public's awareness of how their tax dollars are being spent and to gather and promote ideas that may improve the government's response to this and future crises. With that, I thank you so much for the opportunity to talk you all today, and I'm going to turn things over to Rehana for an overview of how we're advancing transparency and all the fantastic resources available on

Rehana Mohammed:    Great. Thanks so much, Lisa. I just have to say I'm so excited to be here with all of you talking about our website,, and our efforts to improve transparency into, not only the pandemic response, but also the work that we're doing to hold wrongdoers accountable, investigate fraud, and recoup those investments. I will share my screen. All right, hopefully this is showing up for you. This is our lovely homepage. We just made some key updates to it. So, I'm going to take you through some of those and just show you where to find some key information that hopefully can help all of you as you are engaging in your oversight work as well.
    One thing that, if you've been to our website, you probably haven't seen yet because we just added it last Friday is a spending tracker right here. This shows the latest amount spent out of the full $5.2 trillion pandemic response that Lisa was talking about. We also have some key tools right upfront at the top of the page that we think are going to be really useful for folks coming to the website. Since PPP is the number one thing that people coming to our website want to dive into and search for, that's right upfront.
    You can also take a look at some of the biggest fraud stories. We highlight some of the cases that Lisa mentioned and show you where those are across the country in an interactive map. And recently, we added more information to these identity theft fraud schemes. We've got a timeline of the work that we've done to prevent identity theft going along with the working group that Lisa just mentioned. You can also see recent stories that we've posted and some news mentions. One thing that we get asked a lot is how much money came from the different pieces of legislation and what thematically did it fund.
    We've taken all that data, broken it down by different topic areas to show how that adds up to the full five plus trillion dollars. And you can see that in what we affectionately call here, the donut. Then we have information about the six pieces of legislation that made up that five plus trillion dollars. And we have some more visualizations that allow you to break down exactly how much money came from, which of the laws and went to which funding categories. So, you can see that breakdown. It's a cool sankey there for those of you that are familiar with different data visualizations.
    Then we've got highlights of recent arrests and indictments. These are press releases put out by the department of justice that we pull over into our site and highlight for users. We've got some resources at the bottom, but this audience, I wanted to draw your attention to actually a new set of resources that we just put out on Friday, which if you navigate to the state and local information page contains kind of two sets of resources. One for the general public and one for federal oversight professionals and state oversight professionals, and also at the local level.
    For the public, but you all might find this interesting as well, we've put together a map here that lists, for each state, different relevant websites that the states have put up that we believe will be helpful for users in understanding the context of the pandemic response in their area. As you all well know, state and local governments have been crucial partners in the federal response to the pandemic. So, we wanted a place to highlight, not only the oversight work that's being done, but also the pandemic response work that each state is doing.
    I know we've got a lot of folks here on the line from the DC Area, but I saw, we also have a lot of folks from Pennsylvania on, so I'll just pick on you all for a second. If we click on Pennsylvania, we can see that they've got a website where they talk about the response and recovery, but we've also linked to the Department of the Auditor General and the state's transparency portal. So, we can click right into that and see all the information that Pennsylvania has compiled to show more deeply the pandemic response data for that particular state.
    Some of your states have built some really cool portals. So, definitely check those out using this new resource map. We also have been putting out data stories and featured stories on our website to really take the users through a particular circumstance and explain what's going on in plain language so that anyone could understand it. There are different data stories that we've done that relate more to the state and local response. So, definitely check those out. We're highlighting a few of them on this page, but all of them are available through the blog function on the site, or also hear with the list of data stories.
    I just want to highlight a couple of those. One is this story that we did on education funding. You can see we've got a map here, explain a little bit about the program, and then right away, you can see how much was obligated for each state, how much has been spent. And we break it down on how much has been spent per student from the ESSER program, one particular program focused on education. Another great visualization, and this one probably will be of interest to you all, breaks down how much money each state got from the CRF, the Coronavirus Relief Fund program and the new State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund program that was passed as a part of the American Rescue Plan.
    So, it shows the top states top 15 states, but we also show the top 15 states per capita and how much they received from each of those programs. Again, just trying to pick out some interesting data points, highlight those for users so that they can see really what's going on at the state and local level, and find out more about where they live. If you're really interested in the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund program, you can also check out the individual state plans. We have those linked here, and that will be supplemented as well on our website with additional SLFRF data once we get that from the Treasury Department.
    One quick thing I also wanted to show you all is we have, in case you haven't seen it before, is we have an interactive map tool on the website, which allows you to filter for our particular dataset and search your local area to see across all the different datasets that we have that have location information, what obligations have [...] And what's actually been spent in your particular geographic area. So, you can search a location. Once again, I'm going to pick on Pennsylvania and it'll Zoom you in to check out some totals, and you can Zoom in to see prime and sub-recipients in your state.
    Definitely check out our interactive map. Another great tool that we have on the website are interactive dashboards. This is where we really take the time to break down particular datasets and pull out the most important information so that, once again, any user can interact with the data and come to their own insights, find their own patterns. We have specific program dashboards for CRF, PPP, and PRF programs. We're going to be adding more visualizations for particular programs in the future, but let's look at the CRF program because what's extra cool about the CRF dashboard is that this data is ... You can only find on our website.
    If we scroll down, you can see high level information about the program. We've got a bar here where you can filter again, by your location or the type of award you want to see, or enter a keyword search. You can also filter by clicking a particular state, and that will cause the entire page to filter. Now I'm seeing the top prime recipients in California, since I've clicked that on the map, I won't go through the entire dashboard, but there's a lot to check out. So, definitely recommend it if you're interested in diving deep into the data for your particular geographic area.
    I'm going to take us back to this state and local information page and show you a couple of the resources that are available for oversight professionals. There are a lot of great tools that are available on our website. Some that have been there for a while, some that are new. So, what we've done is compiled those all in one place on this page, so that they're easy to access for all of you. We've got a toolkit available on doing agile oversight that we use at the PRAC and our member IGs use to do oversight of ongoing open programs.
    There's also the fraud risk inventory for CARES Act funds for these main programs, and guidance on the SLFRF program from Treasury linked to that, because we know that, that's a big program that a lot of you are focused on right now. Then we've got a link to our lessons learned report, that Lisa mentioned, which again, definitely recommend checking out that report. It's got a lot of great information about what we've seen and we're going to be supplementing that moving forward. Down here, we already went to the interactive dashboard, but we linked to it from this page as well.
    Just because we know that again, CRF is a big focus for you all because it's one of the main mechanisms for state and local governments to do their pandemic response work. You can also connect with us about your oversight work, whether you need assistance, or just want to coordinate on a project that you're working on. We have many ways to connect with us. You can post a report. We have state and local reports now in our reports library. So, you can see those, check them out, check out what your colleagues and other states are working on. Or if you just finish a report and you notice it's not there, send it over to us and we'd be happy to, in fact, we'd love to add it to our reports library so that everyone has access to it.
    You can also, of course, submit to hotline complaint. We also have, at the top of our website on every page, a bright red button, where folks can submit to our hotline. Critical tool for us. And you can refer a complaint that you have received if you think it's more appropriate to go to the PRAC or another federal IG. We're happy to be a conduit for getting those complaints to the right people, whether it be our task force or another IG. And you can coordinate directly with other federal IG offices. We have a list of press contacts, and we'll also be updating this page with a list of contacts at the federal IG offices directly.
    One other thing I wanted to show from this page is that link to our state and local reports. As of today, we have 177 reports as recently as from March 1st. These are fully searchable. You can filter by a date range, or you can filter by a particular state and see what comes up, what's been done from your state auditor office, or what's been posted into your website that we've included here. Again, if you've been working on something that's left out, please let us know. For example, if I want to see some reports from California, we've got 18. I can just select that filter. Then these take me directly to the reports themselves on the state website.
    Those are some major tools. Again, I definitely recommend spending some time on the website, checking out all the different resources that we have, all the different reports that the PRAC has put out, and the work of other pandemic IGs. But for this audience, your best bet is going to be to head to that new state and local information page, because that has all the resources for you in one place. I know that we're going to have some time at the end to do Q&A, but you can also use the Q&A box in Zoom to ask any questions. And even though we're going to be pivoting off of the website, I'll be checking the Q&A box to answer any questions you've got.
    Again, really excited to share this information with you. I hope you check out our website. I hope you head to some of those dashboards or interactive map and do some of your own searches. And I should have mentioned too, on any of the dashboards, you can see that we've got a big blue button on the top, data questions, email us. Please use it. If you can't find something that you're looking for, please reach out and we can always help you navigate our website or do a specific search and make sure that you get the data that you need, especially if you're working on an oversight activity or a story, or anything like that, just reach out to us. With that, I believe I'm ... Oh, perhaps passing it back to Lisa. Oh, to Ben. Sorry about that. [crosstalk 00:37:46].

Ben Eikey:    No worries. No worries. Well, good afternoon everybody. Before I even begin, I just want to say thank you so much Rehana and to Lisa for their presentation. I mean, what a resource available with PRAC and all of the information that they have been able to gather from all over the country. You can be able to ... They have that deep dive looking specifically at one's own state, and then you can look nationally at certain trends and different information. Just really pretty incredible, all the information put there.
    My goal for the portion of the workshop that I'm leading today is to now look at, in light of all these resources and information that are available, just the ways that state legislatures can be able to feel empowered using the information to conduct fact-based legislative oversight in their own state. I'm going to share my screen so I can get our presentation up. Looks good to me. Again, our webinar is about data transparency, finding facts, and lessons learned. This is in partnership with PRAC. And my name is Ben Eikey. I, at the Levin Center at Wayne Law, lead our state workshops and our communication.
    I've had the real privilege of doing workshops for specific states and also workshops in a national view for all across the country. A lot of that really is because of our 50 states study that we researched in 2019, or 2018, published in 2019. What Levin Center researchers were able to do was look all across the country at every state legislature and looked at the different ways in which they conduct oversight, how they find facts about things that are happening in their states. We broke it down into these six separate dimensions of oversight. So, analytic bureaucracies are going to be the legislative auditor or a fiscal agency, these sort of different resources.
    Appropriations process, different requirements via a budget, committees are going to be more, kind of your ability to archive and keep information, holding hearings. Then the other one that we've been focusing on recently has been monitoring contracts. A lot of the pandemic response has been done through. So, this is a really great opportunity for state legislatures across the country to conduct effective oversight looking at, from the last two years, sort of processes that have been placed, what's working, what could be improved, but also, as we're about to embark on some pretty significant infrastructure spending.
    I think I just saw today, the infrastructure report card came out and the United States was ranked as a C minus for our infrastructure. So, there's certainly going to be a lot of interest in looking at ways to improve our infrastructure and improve our pandemic response. But again, it's easier to spend the money than to track it. We got to follow it. We got to make sure that we're having the intended positive impact we're looking for and making sure that state legislatures have that empowerment, have that ability to conduct effective oversight. It's really a large part of what we do here at the Levin Center. And that report is available. The URL's on the bottom. Just go to, and ought to be able to find that and several other reports that we've done on oversight since then.
    But before we go, I'm ready for it to be a little more interactive. We're getting close to 45 minutes and haven't had a chance to ask anybody anything yet. I'm just kind of curious, since the start of the pandemic, have you really had any memorable reports or hearings? It can be state level, it can be federal level that have been conducted in response to the pandemic. Feel free to share in the chat. Again, the question is, have you had in state or on a federal level, any memorable reports or hearings that have been conducted in response to the pandemic? I guess none at all. I can wait a second or two more in case anybody's typing anything in. Well, that's okay. I'll move on and start going into the real, kind of the entree of the presentation.
    Really thinking about these certain areas of pandemic oversight that state legislators ought to be able to take a close look at and prioritize. And the first one's probably a familiar one is going to be looking at unemployment insurance. When looking at unemployment insurance and thinking about in the context of oversight, I group it into two large buckets. We have, looking about fraud and different ways in which those have been trying to abuse our systems. That picture is from The New York Times article. That is a picture of somebody who was frauding unemployment system, took a picture of that, put it online, and was advertising that this person had private information that somehow had been acquired and was willing to sell it to other people so that way they could also go and commit fraud on their unemployment system.
    Thought that was just really quite a compelling image. And then the other side of this would be customer service. I think sometimes it's an underrated area of oversight where just overwhelming constituent inquiry can be the start of an oversight investigation. When the pandemic first started, and the fact that a lot of state legislative offices all across the country were just flooded, inundated with constituent inquiry, trying to be able to get access to services and were not able to obtain them, good, honest, hard-working people that just couldn't get in and being able to do investigations on, how do we make sure that there's enough case workers for the amount of people that are looking for employment services?
    Or does the website, is this intuitive? Does this all make sense? Different sorts of processes that can be put in place. And thinking about in the last couple of the years, just what's worked and what can still be improved upon. The Washington state auditor was one that really stuck out to me that I thought was interesting, was looking at how there was this huge spike in fraudulent claims, really kind of in the first couple of months of the pandemic in 2020. And then there was a nice little drop off. It was a good dropping or back down almost about the same level as it was prior, not quite but close. I always thought that was really interesting and just some of the processes that could be in play to be able to try to really kind of turn the corner on some of the fraud that we've seen, not just in Washington State, but all across the country.
    Before I go on, I want to do a poll question. Margo, do you mind putting the poll question up and see if we can get it to go? Perfect. I got a couple of poll questions here, just to make it more interactive. And also, I just really want to hear kind of everybody that's on the webinar today, how often would you say you engage in oversight activities related to state government, government programs, or government contracts? Rarely, if ever. Maybe once per session. A few times per session. Or at least once per week. It's really funny, on the bottom of this, I don't know if anybody else can see that, but it says in a big red lettering, that hosts and panelists can't vote.
    So, I'm not allowed to say that I do this all day every day. It's going to skew the results. I'll wait another couple of moments here, just so people can click in and get their vote in. All right. Margo, do you know if you can close it out and we can see the results? Well, it closed, I'm not quite sure ... Oh, there it goes. It pops right up. All right. I mean, I think there's probably a little bit of a sampling bias in play here, but it says that only one out of 27 are rarely, if ever, engage in oversight activities. 11% are saying maybe once in a session. 44% are saying a few times throughout their session. And then 41% are saying at least one per week.
    That's a kind of an interesting spread to me. I think that there's some folks that are really dedicated to the advancement of oversight and being able to run the work. That's encouraging. I'm actually really appreciating seeing that. We did a poll similar to this a few weeks ago with California, and they said their number one hindrance from being able to conduct oversight was time and resources, which I thought was really interesting being one of the larger states as far as their resources. But what's interesting with oversight is that we have lots of different mechanisms that can be in play in big states and small states, and all sorts of different backgrounds.
    Lots of really innovative oversight strategies being used across the country that I'm happy to talk about for some time. But before I do that, it's time to talk about spending tracking. This is my favorite graphic that I was able to find for the presentation. Thanks again, the National Association of Manufacturers. When thinking about spending tracking, this is definitely an area where ... I mean, this is exactly why I was so excited to be able to team up with PRAC for this webinar, because so much of this information was even covered throughout Lisa's presentation. I really liked when she said, we've covered a lot, we've recommended a lot. I really loved that moment, because they did [...] It's true.
    I mean, there's a lot of information on that website, looking at ARPA spending. Also, just recently, with Levin Center, I was fortunate enough to publish a blog looking at ARPA websites all throughout the country. So, these are state websites that are tracking ARPA spending all across the country, and all the different source of kind of unique different approaches several states are taking to be able to ensure transparent of the spending for ARPA dollars. It's really quite compelling information. I was glad to see the PPP dollars were included with the presentation, just through a moment ago from PRAC with their information online. Thank you again, to whoever filled out the pre-survey to say they were interested in looking at oversight of the PPP.
    I think that using PRAC as an opening resource is a great start, and then from there, thinking about ways to be able to boost state oversight using the resources at Levin Center is really an interesting, a compelling approach. And then of course, infrastructure. Circling back to the information we talked about just previously, and thinking about here we are right on the edge of being able to really put some pretty significant dollars at work to be able to really rebuild their infrastructure all across the country. This is a great opportunity to be able to think about this in the contracts' perspective, because a lot of new contracts are going to be signed all across the country for roads, for bridges, for dams, for all these different sorts of things.
    Being able to have, on that front-end, all sorts of oversight mechanisms in play, have it in the contract, how much it's going to cost to be able to cut the oversight, and who is reporting to who, getting all that information from the word go is going to make the routine oversight just so much easier, and so you're not chasing. I believe it's time for poll question number two. Margo, do you mind putting it in? Oh, and while that's popping up, I could see somebody put in a ... Thank you, Ian. Earlier question on the pandemic oversight hearings and reports. Yeah, senate finance. Holding a hearing back on March 17th, 2021, a national strategy. COVID-19 in the nation's nursing homes.
    The GAO was among the witnesses. That's an issue all across the country. It'll actually be in my next slide a little bit. We'll be talking about public health. Oh yeah, question number two. I'm a lousy jeopardy host right now. My state is prepared to track and monitor spending on infrastructure and the pandemic. One being not at all. Five being the best. Do you agree with this statement? Again, I can't vote. I would say, for my home state of Michigan, I'm encouraged by some of the different things we've seen in place. We have a great auditor general. I think that the legislature has taken a real commitment to it. It's interesting. I'm sure what number I'll give though. Don't tell him I said though.
    All right, Margo. I think that we're good to close this one. I'm super interested to see what the results ... Whoa, right in the middle. I thought about doing an even number just to make sure that we all kind of had the side, fall one side of the other. Look at that, 62% are saying three. That's fascinating. I would love to be able to tease that out. I hope in the future that this is a start of a conversation where we can do something more interactive as like a masterclass with a Zoom meeting, maybe even something in-person someday, if we're very lucky, just to be able to hear a little bit more about why three?
    It makes me wonder if there's like certain really great resources that are available, but still just comprehensively, like the big picture on pandemic response and oversight. Maybe just not feeling confident enough there. I would love to be able to tease that question out more. That's such an interesting distribution to me. And not a soul said five, not one. Well, I guess we're in the right place, learning the right things. It's fascinating. Thank you for everyone's participation there. The big kind of third thing that I was looking at, and of course pandemic response is much bigger than just these three things that I chose to prioritize here.
    But again, with only a minimal amount of time, I wanted to look at some of these bigger issues. I mean, relatively bigger issues. They all are. Thinking about public health data tracking, I thought that this was one of the more interesting areas, at least from my perspective, because you're looking at ... I mean, really it's the odds of March today. So, it's been two solid years now that we've had data tracking on public health and just the terrible toll of this pandemic. Thinking about doing oversight on infection rate, looking at hospitalizations, looking at death rates, looking at all these information, and just trying to develop an idea on, if there are efforts in the different processes in place, what is the impact?
    It's going to be difficult to ever say for sure, because again, you can only take one road of that fork, but I do think there's a lot of effective moments that can be looked at with regards to the nursing home information and also with, going back to the first two bullets there, talking about PPE and talking about testing. At the Levin Center, we were fortunate to publish some case studies about a year and a half ago, saying, where we looked at some contracts that were signed, particularly on PPE for first responders, people like firefighters, and also looked at ventilator contracts. We looked at some consulting contracts for unemployment systems and just the myriad of issues that arose from a lot of these emergency no bid, sort of contracts that were paid for a top dollar, and just unfortunately, just delayed delivery, delivery at all of several of the products that were supposed to be delivered.
    Lots of really important lessons to be learned when looking at some of those different steps that have happened or did not happen in the first two years of response to the pandemic to be able to make sure that we are as prepared as possible going into the future. There's certainly some interesting things to look at that. And broadly speaking from all these three different slides, there's a lot of different ways in which a state legislature and local community, sort of local governments as well, can be able to conduct effective oversight. We, at the Levin Center, we talk all about this ability to be able to gather together and fact find, be able to decide on a solid question that you're trying to answer, and work across the aisle as much as you can, knocking at oversight in an echo chamber.
    And also, don't work alone because it's one perspective, and it's always more effective if you're able to work with people that see the world a little differently than yourself. And once you have your facts found, do the written product. Actually get right on paper, all the information, all the facts you were able to find. That way, the next day, a week, a year from now, you still have that information so you still know. Then, you can make a decision of whether or not a hearing is necessary. We've had plenty of hearings in response to the pandemic.
    I think that a way to have as effective of a hearing as you can have is to do that sort of legwork prior to be able to pull somebody in, to be able to really have the facts and have the information ready to go, to get the information to get people on record. Also, I think that the last slide would've been a good place to bring this up, thinking about appropriations and all the different ways through budgetary language, through things like boiler plate, reporting requirements, to be able to get information that can be sent to chairs of appropriations committees, to be able to make sure that things are on track. I think sometimes, with oversight, we're so focused on scandal.
    We're so focused on when things go wrong that I think sometimes we gloss over routine oversight. And routine oversight is such an important part of the process, and something that I really wish sometimes received a little more attention. The story that I always express prior to my work at Levin Center, I worked at the Michigan House of Representatives for many years. One of the reports that we received in my boss's office was just on parole. And all we wanted to know was just, on a quarterly basis, how many people were considered for parole that were eligible and how many people were paroled? We had just received a report every couple of months and there was never really anything strange, but then one time there was.
    And we found out that things were not working correctly in the women's prison because they didn't have enough staff to be able to teach a specific class required for parole. And as a result, you had women that would get to their release date and not be considered for parole because they hadn't taken their turn in the class. And we were able to create some pretty dramatic change almost immediately as a result of that routine oversight. And I think that, that's something that needs to be also looked at today in a pandemic response context, just routine, I want to make sure that masks are going to be somewhere they need to be sent, where testing is there.
    That things that are happening with schools, that we have the right resources where they need to be, and just make sure that those information is being received by the legislatures and by other entities that are able to monitor and track. So, if something does look like it's going off the rails, we can get it back. The last point I wanted to bring up before I go to the next slide is looking at just this idea of pursuing an investigation. Again, thinking on public health data tracking, we have two years of information now.
    We have been suffering through this pandemic for quite some time, and now is an excellent moment to be able to say, okay, what have we learned? What's the information? Just not even thinking about solutions yet, just plain and simple, these last two years, what can we gather together as the facts of what we're facing? Then from there, once there's agreement on that, oh, we can flourish with all sorts of solutions, and we can be able to find that foundation first though. Then from there, be able to decide, how can we best move forward as a nation?
    I just talked about all of that, but I really want to talk about why state legislators have such a unique position in our country. I want to talk a little bit about when you're a state legislator and just these superpowers that are available. When you're a legislator, your phone calls and your emails are returned. People want to help. And especially if they really don't interact all that often with the state legislature and they received an inquiry from somebody who's an expert on something. Oh, I mean, people couldn't wait to be able to share their information and to be able to try to help and contribute to just an inquiry.
    Not even a full-blown investigation, just trying to get some of the basic information in front of me. I was really blown away at the amount of people that just were like, "Yes, whatever I can do to be able to do to give you assistance on an issue that I've been working on for a very long time, I'm happy to help." I believe that legislators can request investigations. They can request reports. So, if they do not have the head space or they do not have the staffing to be able to look into something they really want to pursue, there are resources. It depends state by state, of course, and the different sort of nonprofit that might be in play as well, but there is an ability to do that in every state in this country.
    I like how legislature questions, they trigger research. They can trigger reconsideration, they can trigger change. I think that's a really important moment because it gives us all something to be able to look at, and just kind of view a problem that's just in our state just a little bit differently. I think there's time and again where legislators have been able to do that. I definitely believe in this last bullet point, that oversight, it has as much impact as legislation, if not more. Back at the end of last year, our oversight ... We have a Carl Levin Award that we do for exceptional oversight.
    And that award was given to a state senator out of Oregon. Her name is Sara Gelser Blouin. She conducted an investigation on child welfare services in the State of Oregon after a 15-year-old boy died under state supervision, threw a sandwich at lunch, and was tackled by staff and suffocated. And that led to a full-blown investigation that she conducted with help with other colleagues. She got the department on her side, as much as she could, and was able to completely overhaul the way they take care of vulnerable children in Oregon, and also all across the country. I like using in this example because there is no magic wand bill to be able to fix a problem as complicated and nuanced as child welfare services.
    There's no like, okay, I'm introducing a bill to make it better, to improve it, but I don't have the detail. I need that process component. That was really kind of the point that I wanted leave across is that, sort of oversight and having that ability to have as much impact of legislation, if not more. Also, if we have a quick moment, anybody have any specific examples to share, any kind of interesting special moments that you've seen happen on a state or local level? Just being able to get people in the door, be able to ask for questions, get information that just simply was not going to be able to be procured in any other way.
    I know it takes a while for some response. I can wait a moment and then I'll have to run to the next slide. All right. I want to take a moment to be able to talk about some of the recommendations that we've been able to develop here at the Levin Center through our research and through just experience of looking at state level and federal oversight all across the country. In every state, there's the potential to be able to do a joint oversight committee of equal partisan membership. We have seen these work and thrive in big states and small states and states all sorts of different political backgrounds.
    We also noticed, this is particularly in Idaho, this concept of procurement staff that are training the state agency staff all while the legislature is holding hearings on those sort of high risk, high dollar, sort of contracts. Idaho has a pretty comprehensive oversight looking at several of their contracts because they again, also had a really bad situation arose, and ever since then, their legislature has been able to prioritize oversight in that capacity. Also, because again, if you're auditing your high risk contracts and your overall contracting process, those are the big contracts where there could be a whole lot of things that do not go right.
    That could work in infrastructure, that could be in your pandemic response. Just focusing on those big dollar items is going to be just simply the best use of your limited resources. You can specifically assign contract oversight to your relevant communities. So, if you have public health contracts, having those be assigned specifically to a health policy committee, perhaps, or to a transportation committee for infrastructure matters. On the front, having your cost and your transparency requirements right there on the initial contract. If you can do it, I'd even prefer having the vendor be able to provide information directly to chairs. I think that's really the stakes and where we are. I would like to see that happen.
    Automatic reporting requirements are really effective for the legislatures that are part-time that, even when they're not in session, still requiring reporting, getting the information when you're not around town is a very effective way to be able to, again, conduct that routine oversight, be able to make sure that things are going as intended by the legislature. This phrasing I put in, I actually got this from Minnesota. There's a checkbook transparency of spending. And this is the phrase that I saw off from their website when talking about spending of ARPA data. Looking at just all the different places in which ARPA data was being sent out, and then just having step by step, like in a column, of just the different, sort of grants, and the different places where the money was going, how much the money has been spent, and how much of the money is going to be allocated.
    I thought it was very detailed and effective. I'd love to see more states be able to do that, to be able to enhance transparency of ARPA dollars and really of just the response across the board. There's also several other recommendations that are specific legislation policy sort of things. I'm happy to talk about that in more detail another time. We've been looking at a couple of different ones across the country. California has won to enhance their contract oversight, seeing some other ones with regards to governor emergency powers. Happy to talk about that another time, but we're starting to kind of gather sort of like an archive of different sorts of bills and language that we're seeing all across the country. Would love to be able to get that up and going soon.
    Most people introduce themselves at the beginning. Thought it was best to introduce ourselves near the end. I wanted to be able to show all of our information and just kind of more and more about the background work before we really gave this broader picture, the Levin Center and the great work that we're doing here. We are a center. We are a bipartisan center dedicated to the expansion of legislative oversight. We operate in DC and we are headquartered in Wayne State's Law School. Lots of several wonderful pictures here on this slide. The top one is from the Pennsylvania Oversight Committee. We did a comprehensive two-day oversight workshop with their committee. On the bottom left was the National Council of Insurance Legislators, their summer meeting. We had a panel in that discussion.
    Then on the bottom right is the CSG West Annual Meeting from last year, where we were able to meet with a legislative oversight working group to discuss oversight priorities. Various things are available on our website. We have videos and testimony and webinars. We have been invited to speak in hearings in several state legislatures across the country. Lots of good information there. Again, the workshops that we do in state legislatures, in Congress, we've been able to team up with organizations like PRAC, very thankful for that, but we've even done workshop for international legislatures. I have a listserv that I work and put together about every week or two, just with various state oversight news.
    Feel free to subscribe,, just send me a message. Again, on our research and our reports, our 50 state study, we have a report on contract oversight and several other things. We also are always, we're a big active lively center, and we are always doing different panels, we have different events happening. Feel free to be able to attend as much as you can. With that, I want to say thank you to everybody. I really appreciate you all taking some time this afternoon to be able to hear a little bit more about PRAC and all the great resources they have available. And also, just the way through the Levin Center, through state legislatures, where we can really leverage this opportunity, and leverage all this information that is available at PRAC to be able to conduct effective oversight in every state legislature.
    We sincerely believe in that and we want to be able to serve as a resource to be help in any way we can. I just really appreciate everyone taking the time this afternoon. If you need any information at all from me, I'm happy to talk to anybody on this call. My email's right there, I think at this time, we'll switch it over to questions. Thank you everybody. Thanks Derek. I was glad to see you on the call. I see a question. 
    Great question. So, from a anonymous attendee, how are you working with tribal nations in the same way? Not yet. I would be very interested in being able to have some opening introductions and some discussions there. Just have not had the opportunity to yet unfortunately. I would very much like to. I don't know if PRAC can be able to talk about this in more detail.

Bob Westbrook:    Yeah. So, Ben, I mean, we do work with the tribals primarily through our working groups and listening posts, and we do emphasize that it's not just state and locals, but state, local, and tribal. There's nuanced reporting requirements through the Department of Treasury for tribal governments, but otherwise, to our regular listening posts, that's how we interact primarily with our various stakeholders. I don't know if Lisa or Rehana, have anything else you want to add to that?

Ben Eikey:    I think we're good. All Alrighty. I think that's all the questions in the moment now. I think we'll just ... Oh, we have the message? Oh, just checking for any further questions.

Rehana Mohammed:    So, not new questions, but there were a couple questions in the chat before that we'd already answered that I thought I'd highlight for other folks just on the PRAC website and things like that. So, got a question about the data story link that I put in the chat on the CRF Fund and the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and that being a little bit hard to find. Don't worry. Thanks for that feedback. We're going to link to that from the state and local information page that I showed you earlier. So, I was just chatting with my team and saying, where can we add this link?
    We'll do that so it's a little bit more accessible. We also got a question on the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and basically when more data would be coming. So, we're working with treasury right now to get an understanding of when they'll be posting data, but we're waiting to see that as well. So, I know that reporting deadlines have happened and they're working on putting that together. Once that's an available on, it'll also be available on As soon as it's up, we'll pull it over. We know that's a big program that's of interest, particularly to this group, but that's a big chunk of money.

Ben Eikey:    Definitely. Well, great. I think I just want to reiterate, thank you all again, so much for this afternoon. Thank you to PRAC for a wonderful presentation. I really just wanted to say I'm looking forward to be able to find other opportunities to be able to work together in the future and thinking about different ways that we can sort of build on this foundation of having all sorts of wonderful resources available and being able to leverage that power of oversight, to be able to find facts and try to keep our pandemic recovery on track.

Lisa Reijula:    Thanks Ben. And from the PRAC, thank you to the Levin Center for your partnership and to everyone who attended today. We can't make a dent in the massive challenge before us to oversee this funding without the work that you all do and without the opportunity to share our mission and gather feedback. We hope we're providing useful resources, data and information that's valuable. And please, let us know your feedback. We're always looking for new partners and ways to collaborate. So, thanks again for your time this afternoon.

Ben Eikey:    Thanks again.

Rehana Mohammed:    I just wanted to add, totally agree with everything Lisa said, and also, if there's something you're looking for on our website that you don't find a particular dataset, or program, or something that you wish you could search for, or a different way you want to see the data and you can't find it, please reach out to us as well. You can just use those blue buttons on the dashboard pages, or email Lisa or I directly. We're always looking for that feedback as well, because we want to calibrate the website to what you all are looking for and make sure that we're providing those most relevant tools. So, thanks so much.

Ben Eikey:    Agreed.

Page last modified: 11/06/2023
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