COVID-19, News, Trump Administration

Trump ousts another watchdog as critics see ‘disturbing pattern’

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday ousted the second federal watchdog in the span of five days as congressional Democrats accused him of purging federal employees for political reasons.

Trump removed the Defense Department’s Acting Inspector General, Glenn Fine, who had been on the job since early 2016. Last week, Fine had been named by a group of other inspectors general to lead a committee tasked with overseeing how the government spends $2 trillion in COVID-19 relief aid. Trump also named Sean O’Donnell, the inspector general of the U.S. EPA, to serve as the acting DOD inspector general.

Fine’s ouster came after Trump on Friday fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who had told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment, CNN reported.

Lawmakers and other critics warn that the administration is meddling with independent oversight.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday that Fine’s “sudden removal and replacement” is “part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the President against independent overseers fulfilling their statutory and patriotic duties to conduct oversight on behalf of the American people.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that “Trump is abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight.”

Now, O’Donnell — who has been on the job at EPA for just over two months — will dramatically expand his portfolio.

On top of overseeing EPA, which has an annual budget of about $8.8 billion and a workforce of about 14,000 people, O’Donnell will be tasked with overseeing the nation’s largest employer. The Defense Department has an annual budget of about $716 billion and employs about 2.87 million people.

Prior to serving as EPA’s inspector general, O’Donnell worked for 15 years at the Justice Department, most recently as a prosecutor in the criminal division’s money laundering and asset recovery section. He was detailed to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, where he worked on the group that vetted and prepared candidates — including now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — for federal judicial nominations.

O’Donnell will serve as the Defense Department’s acting inspector general starting this week, said Kentia Elbaum, a spokeswoman for the EPA IG’s office. She confirmed that he will be serving as EPA’s top watchdog as well.

Trump on Friday announced plans to nominate Jason Abend, a senior policy advisor at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to be the Defense Department’s permanent inspector general. That post requires Senate confirmation.

As acting DOD IG, O’Donnell will not automatically assume Fine’s duties as the head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Under the $2 trillion COVID-19 response package, the Defense Department IG is a member of that committee, which is tasked with preventing waste, fraud and abuse, Elbaum said.

A council of federal inspectors general, which had previously selected Fine, will be charged with naming a new leader of the oversight committee.

‘The world is upside down’ 

Earl Devaney, a former Interior Department inspector general who was hired in 2009 to police the distribution of federal stimulus spending by the Obama administration, has worked with Fine and called him “one of the best” among inspectors general.  Read more

COVID-19, News

Washington update: Behemoth $2T COVID-19 response bill becomes law (Updated)

WASHINGTON — A $2 trillion bill to aid workers, health care providers and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic passed the U.S. House and was signed into law by President Trump on Friday.

Many House members reconvened in Washington to approve the 880-page measure, which stands to be the largest economic aid package in U.S. history. The chamber passed the measure using a “voice vote” typically used for uncontroversial measures, despite the objection of one House Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who attempted to force a recorded vote.

The massive bill — which would expand unemployment insurance, send direct checks to many Americans and offer financial aid to industries — cleared the U.S. Senate earlier this week. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he would “sign it immediately.”

No one loves the final package, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle insisted as they spoke on the House floor ahead of Friday’s vote. Still, most of them were willing to stomach provisions they disliked, arguing that acting swiftly to combat the public health and economic crisis was their top priority.

Among the bill’s key provisions:

  • A dramatic increase in unemployment insurance benefits. That would include about $600 per person per week in federal money, which would be in addition to what people get from states.
  • Direct checks of $1,200 per person for many adults and $500 for dependent children. The Washington Post created a stimulus payment calculator.
  • Forgivable loans for small businesses to cover payroll and other business costs.
  • A $500 billion loan program that would aid airlines and other large industries impacted by the crisis.
  • $150 billion in aid for states and local governments.
  • $100 billion for emergency funding for hospitals.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have stressed that additional response legislation will be necessary, but that they sought to quickly infuse cash into the health care system and the economy.

“We do know that we must do more … this cannot be our final bill,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday ahead of the bill’s passage. She said that state and local governments, as well as health care systems, will require more financial support.

Among the North Carolina House members to weight in were Republicans Richard Hudson and Dan Bishop.

Said Hudson: “These are challenging times for our country, yet throughout our history, America has risen to every challenge, and today is no different. I don’t like everything in this bill. While we kept out dangerous provisions like union bailouts, the Green New Deal and election schemes, it still has items I don’t agree with and I worry about the price tag. However, families, hospitals and small businesses need immediate relief.”

Bishop put it this way: “I’m going to vote ‘yes’ enthusiastically. This is a big bill, but the American people are bigger. They will respond to the present threat as Americans have always faced grave challenges: as free men and women with deep reservoirs of strength, capability and when summoned, duty and confidence.”

COVID-19, News

Obama stimulus watchdog: ‘Bad guys’ will make play for COVID-19 relief cash

Image: AdobeStock

WASHINGTON — Earl Devaney is feeling déjà vu.

Devaney, a former longtime federal watchdog, was hired in 2009 to police the distribution of $840 billion in federal stimulus spending for the Obama administration. He had previously worked for the U.S. Secret Service, the EPA’s environmental enforcement division and as the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Now happily retired and living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Devaney has nonetheless been offering guidance to House and Senate committees as they’ve hammered out the details of a far more ambitious spending package to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Senate late Wednesday night passed a $2 trillion spending bill that could be signed into law as early as this week.

“It’s an awful lot of money,” Devaney said. “It seems a little bit like déjà vu, that’s for sure.”

Democrats have pressed to ensure that an inspector general and congressionally appointed board monitor the funds loaned out to industries under the program.

Devaney, who led such an effort in the past, said fraudsters will undoubtedly try to game the system.

“As you and I are talking right now, hundreds of bad guys are forming LLCs in various states … with the intent of applying for this money as soon as it becomes available,” Devaney said. “You put $2 trillion on the table, every self-respecting fraud artist in the world is going to show up for it.”

Watchdogs may not be able to get their oversight operations up and running as quickly as some lawmakers are promising to dole out cash, Devaney said. It took his team about six months to set up an analytical platform to watch where the money was going.

If another inspector general is brought on to monitor the cash spent by this bill, Devaney said their job will be like “straddling barbed wire.” If they fail, they will be in “big trouble.”

And sometimes problems exposed by watchdogs can be embarrassing for politicians. “It works both ways,” Devaney said, noting that the Obama administration was “not happy” when his team began to show that some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds went to companies that “went belly up” after they took the money.

The Obama administration came under intense scrutiny when the California-based solar company Solyndra went bankrupt after it received a $535 million loan from the government, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

“That was embarrassing for the administration,” Devaney said. “On the other hand, the public deserves this kind of transparency. It’s an enormous amount of money and you’d like to think that they could guard it somehow.”

News

U.S. Senate votes to ax DeVos student loan policy

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to overturn a controversial regulation from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that her critics say hurts defrauded student loan borrowers.

Senate Democrats forced the vote under the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows Congress to overturn federal rules within 60 days after they’re finalized. The U.S. House in January also approved a resolution to reject the so-called borrower defense rule from DeVos.

The Senate voted 53-42 on Wednesday to rescind the rule. Ten Republicans broke ranks on the vote: Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (W.V.); Susan Collins (Maine); Joni Ernst (Iowa); Cory Gardner (Colo.); Josh Hawley (Mo.); Martha McSally (Ariz.); Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); Rob Portman (Ohio); Dan Sullivan (Alaska); and Todd Young (Ind.). North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Thom Tillis voted “no.”

The rule now faces an uncertain future. The White House has threatened to veto the resolution, and overriding that veto would require two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress. The votes in both chambers fell short of meeting that threshold (the House voted 231-180 to approve the resolution in January).

The White House said in its veto threat that upending the rule “would restore the partisan regulatory regime of the previous administration, which sacrificed the interests of taxpayers, students, and schools in pursuit of narrow, ideological objectives.”

But Trump told GOP senators on Tuesday that he was “neutral” on the measure, Politico reported.

The Trump administration’s borrower defense rule overhauled the Obama administration’s policy to forgive loan debt if students had been defrauded by their schools.

During Obama’s tenure, consumer protection claims began to pile up from students who had been enrolled in for-profit colleges. A big spike in claims came after the closure of Corinthian Colleges, which left hundreds of thousands of students in debt and with an education of little value.

The Obama administration set up a system of loan forgiveness in cases of institutional misconduct. But DeVos rewrote the Obama-era rule, which she said was too costly for taxpayers.

Critics say the new policy doesn’t provide sufficient protections for defrauded students and creates unfair hurdles for borrowers seeking relief.

“Here’s what it comes down to: Hundreds of thousands of federal student loan borrowers have been defrauded by their schools” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who led the Senate effort to torpedo the rule, said Tuesday.

But while those students are awaiting action from the Education Department, Durbin said, “they’ve not done anything, except come up with a new rule which says at this point it’s going to be harder for these students to prove fraud.”

COVID-19, News

Top national health officials warn of coronavirus: ‘It’s going to get worse’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to assist public health partners in responding to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). (James Gathany/CDC Public Health Image Library)

WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials painted a dire picture of the novel coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, warning members of Congress that the public health crisis is far from over.

“Is the worst yet to come?” House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

“Yes,” Fauci told her. “It’s going to get worse.” He added, “We will see more cases and things will get worse than they are now.”

Fauci testified at a U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday as health officials around the country scrambled to contain the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

By Wednesday morning, there were at least 1,015 cases of coronavirus confirmed by lab tests and 31 deaths, according to a New York Times database.

Republicans on the committee praised the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the committee, urged Congress to “continue to support the Trump administration and its work to protect the health and safety of the American people.”

Jordan urged his colleagues to “not play politics with the coronavirus. He cited Vice President Mike Pence saying, “the risk to the American people of contracting the coronavirus remains low.”

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) also lauded the administration’s early response to the outbreak, including travel restrictions, asking whether the situation would have been worse without those actions.

“I believe we would be in a worse position, sir, but … we need to do a lot more,” Fauci said.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the positive actions that have been taken in response to the virus have been overlooked “because of the direct criticism of the president, which I think is totally unwarranted.” She said it’s important to “explain the facts, but also not scare everybody about this problem, but ask them to be sensible about what they’re doing.”

‘We do not know what this virus is going to do’ 

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s top public health officials suggested there’s still a great deal of uncertainty around the future of the outbreak in the United States.

Asked by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) about Trump’s claim that warmer weather would slow the spread of the disease, Fauci noted that cases of influenza and other common cold viruses do go “way down” in the spring.

“For someone to at least consider that that might happen is reasonable,” Fauci said. “But — underline but — we do not know what this virus is going to do. We would hope that as we get to warmer weather it would go down. But we can’t proceed under that assumption. We’ve got to assume that it’s going to get worse, and worse and worse.”

Fauci cited a quote attributed to hockey star Wayne Gretzky. “You skate not to where the puck is, but to where the puck is going to be. … Even in areas of the country where there are no or few cases, we’ve gotta change our behavior.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said that the Trump administration “was not prepared for this crisis” and “has put lives at risk, American lives at risk.”

He added, “We aren’t the ones that called the alarms being raised about this pandemic as fake news. That came out of the president of the United States’ mouth.”

Trump tweeted earlier this month, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant. Surgeon General, ‘The risk is low to the average American.’”