The US Treasury sent $1.4bn worth of stimulus cheques to more than 1m dead Americans, a congressional watchdog found, raising further questions about the US government’s response to the pandemic.
In a 403-page report, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s main watchdog, also warned of the risk of fraud in the government’s enhanced unemployment benefits and its flagship Paycheck Protection Program, which provides small US businesses money to keep their employees on payroll.
The watchdog said Treasury mistakenly sent deceased Americans cheques because only the Internal Revenue Service had access to the Social Security Administration’s full set of death records. Treasury and its Bureau of Fiscal Service, which had been distributing the stimulus payments, did not.
A Democratic congressional aide said congressional investigators and the GAO were still trying to piece together what had happened to the $1.4bn and how many cheques to deceased individuals were improperly cashed. “We don’t know what money is actually available and what money has been spent,” the aide said.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, said the revelation highlighted a lack of accountability.
“Where’s the Republican oversight? This is a $3tn package. And every small bit of oversight that the Republicans have done has had to be pushed by Democrats,” he said. “We should be having far more robust oversight over what has happened, as well as moving forward on a new bill.”
The watchdog also noted that IRS had expressed concern “that fraudsters could be using personally identifiable information to receive payments that belong to eligible recipients” using the IRS website portal “and routing the payment to a fraudster’s bank account”.
Separately, the GAO criticised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s early response to testing. It said “accuracy and reliability issues” surrounding the first Covid-19 test that the CDC authorised for use in February had “resulted in significant delays in testing nationwide during the critical early weeks of the outbreak”.
The report comes as Congress prepares to consider a follow-up stimulus package to the $3tn approved since the start of the crisis. Earlier this spring, House Democrats passed their own follow-up bill — the $3.4tn Heroes Act. However, Republicans have said the legislation is a non-starter. Instead, the White House and Republican congressional leaders are discussing a package that could include stimulus cheques to Americans who return to work as enhanced unemployment benefits are phased out.
In its report, the GAO offered particular criticism of the Small Business Administration, which is implementing the PPP alongside Treasury. It painted the agency as one of the few that was reluctant to comply with its investigation, providing the watchdog mainly with information that was already publicly available and taking weeks to respond to its requests.
“We found that the Small Business Administration processed over $512 billion in guaranteed small business loans, but isn’t ready to address fraud risks and hasn’t said how it plans to oversee the loans,” GAO stated.
It warned there was a high risk for fraud both in the PPP and in the government’s enhanced unemployment benefits, which have provided a supplemental $600 a week to Americans who are out of work during the pandemic. The watchdog highlighted that “no mechanism currently exists” to find workers who might be collecting unemployment benefits and wages through PPP at the same time.
While PPP was designed as a rescue fund for small businesses and their employees, the watchdog alleged the programme’s “limited safeguards and lack of timely and complete guidance and oversight planning” had “increased the likelihood that borrowers may misuse or improperly receive loan proceeds”.
SBA, it noted, had also not provided details for how it planned to conduct oversight for PPP loans of $2m or more, or how it would address potential fraud in the 4m PPP loans totalling $2m or less.
GAO’s report was mandated as part of legislation passed in March, the $2tn Cares Act, $643bn of which has been spent, the watchdog said.