Pandemic oversight group details watchdog challenges

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee described issues with conducting oversight of federal agencies who received CARES Act funding and protecting the physical safety of employees whose work did not allow them to perform their duties remotely.

The group tasked with overseeing the federal government's response to the coronavirus pandemic published a 92-page document detailing the various challenges agency inspectors general have identified since Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act into law in March.

The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency's Pandemic Response Accountability Committee includes watchdogs from agencies such as the Defense Department, Department of Health and Human Services, General Services Administration, Small Business Administration and the IRS.

Among the issues listed in the report were agencies' abilities to conduct oversight of federal agencies who received CARES Act funding, IT challenges and protecting the physical safety of employees whose work did not allow them to perform their duties remotely.

IGs from 37 agencies contributed to the report.

"Given the amount of money at issue, the need to distribute aid quickly, and the use of partnerships with nonfederal entities to disburse funds, the programs created by these [stimulus bills] not only require significant effort by executive branch agencies during an ongoing public health emergency, but pose an increased risk of fraud and misuse," the report stated.

The Office of Personnel Management's IG reported that aging infrastructure faltered when an influx of personnel who pivoted to telework and needed remote access to the agency's virtual networks put stress on the networks' bandwidth. A lack of teleconferencing technology also presented challenges to conducting remote meetings.

The Environmental Protection Agency IG reported that the rise in telework increased the risk of security breaches because federal workers were now using home-based routers to connect to agency networks.

IG officials from the Departments of Justice and Veterans Affairs reported that a lack of adequate personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer presented challenges for workers who needed to report to work in person, such as federal prison guards tasked with overseeing inmates and VA health care facility workers.

Conducting oversight of one of the CARES Act's biggest components, the Paycheck Protection Program, presented a particularly large problem.

The Small Business Administration IG reported that an influx of applications from small businesses needing to cover payroll costs exacerbated existing problems from before the pandemic such as "obtaining timely and accurate financial and performance information from grantees and assessing performance to ensure that grants achieve intended results."

At the same time, Democrats from the House Oversight, Small Business, Coronavirus Crisis subcommittee, and Appropriations committees charged the SBA with blocking the Government Accountability Office from being able to carry out a full investigation of the agency's response to the pandemic, as mandated by the CARES Act.

"GAO informed the Committees that SBA has not complied with GAO's requests and repeatedly failed to commit to a timeframe in which SBA would comply," the lawmakers wrote in a June 17 letter to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza.

"To date, SBA has not granted GAO access to all requested SBA officials for interviews and, according to GAO, SBA officials who have been interviewed have not been fully cooperative in providing timely, fulsome, and transparent responses to interview questions."

The lawmakers asked SBA to comply with their requests by June 29.

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