WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, delivered opening remarks at a hearing titled “Pandemic Response and Accountability: Reducing Fraud and Expanding Access to COVID-19 Relief through Effective Oversight.” In his statement, Portman highlighted that out of the $5 trillion spent in response to COVID-19, up to $400 billion has been stolen. Portman called for the examination into the past two years of pandemic relief oversight and this massive fraud against the American people.
A transcript of his opening statement can be found below and a video can be found here.
“Thank you Chairman Peters and thanks to our witnesses. Look forward to hearing from you. As Chairman Peters has said, we spent an awful lot of money on COVID. In fact, over the past two years, we have spent more than $5 trillion, $5 trillion of taxpayer money to address the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s gone for some necessary things, expanding unemployment benefits, supporting small businesses at the time they needed it, and other challenges. Five times we did this on a bipartisan basis, and I was proud to be part of that effort. In fact, the biggest of those bills, I was one of the five Republicans, along with five Democrats who helped put it together. Unfortunately, as the new administration came in, they decided to go it alone and not to take a bipartisan approach. And at the time, I was very concerned about that, in part because it was not going to be something that we could do together as we had previously, but also because much of the money, in fact, most of the money that was spent had nothing to do with COVID. And at the time, some, like Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, said ‘this could set off inflation pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation.’ Many of us echoed those concerns with the $1.9 trillion spending package. Again, that was done on a partisan basis. And unfortunately, it looks like those warnings have largely come true.
“Inflation is at 7.9 percent, a 40 year high, so that’s one issue. We are where we are. But against this backdrop, we have also learned that billions of dollars spent to help American families were stolen, stolen by individual criminals, stolen by transnational criminal organizations, many of whom used fraudulent schemes to exploit the pandemic for their own financial gain. Many of these criminals by the way, were, as I said, transnational, meaning overseas from places like China and Nigeria, Russia and elsewhere. It’s hard to know exactly how much money was stolen. Perhaps we’ll learn more about that today. I know many of you have analyzed this situation. The estimates range from $87 billion to $400 billion. To put this in context, the low estimate there $87 billion, of course, is larger than the entire annual budget for the Department of Homeland Security, over which we have oversight.
“We could send almost six times the recently authorized amount of aid to Ukraine with this money that was stolen from the American people. So we are talking about probably the biggest fraud ever committed against the American people. And even though we don’t know exactly how COVID relief funds were spent or exactly how much was stolen, we have, of course a request to spend a lot more in COVID now. And I’m not suggesting we don’t have additional needs, but it sure would be nice to know how we spent the money that the taxpayers sent us to protect and why so much of it didn’t get to the right place before we have billions more going out the door.
“One of the biggest sources of fraud involved the unemployment insurance programs. As you know, these benefits were designed to help Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic. I thought it was necessary to help those individuals, but billions of these dollars went to criminals who used stolen identities and lax safeguards to steal the money away from Americans who needed it. Unfortunately, we did not have the infrastructure set up to be able to protect those funds.
“Another major source of fraud involves the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. These are two programs that worked well for many small businesses to be able to survive the pandemic. Like the unemployment insurance funds, however, these small business loans became easy targets for criminals both here and abroad. Money that was supposed to be used to employ American workers instead funded organized crime, purchased luxury cars and mansions for criminals. We now know more about this from some of the fraud schemes that have been revealed, and again, we’ll probably hear more about this today.
“The purpose of this hearing, as I see it, is to examine the government’s oversight of this massive spending. Specifically, we need to understand how the fraud occurred, what we can do to get the money back, some of it has been recovered and I want to hear more about that. And of course, most importantly, how we can prevent this from happening in the future, if we’re going to spend billions more let’s figure out how to try to avoid this fraud being perpetrated on American taxpayers.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress established the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to provide oversight of the pandemic relief. This group of 21 Inspectors General were appropriated $120 million and tasked with preventing fraud and mitigating risks associated with the pandemic relief funds. And the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Labor’s Inspector General also had a role to play in overseeing these funds and these programs. Each of the witnesses today brings a unique perspective from these agencies and I appreciate their work and appreciate them being here.
“I look forward to hearing what they have to say about their role in the oversight of these funds, about their plans to help fix the structural problems that allowed the fraud to occur in the first place. And again, I thank them for their service and for testifying today and look forward to the discussion. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”