Watchdog group says COVID spending waste worse than previously thought

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As Congress was debating the latest multi-trillion-dollar package for COVID relief, no one knew the extent of waste and fraud from the last couple of trillion dollar packages. The Project on Government Oversight’s senior analyst Sean Moulton joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to share what he’s been able to find out.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Sean, good to have you back.

Sean Moulton: Thanks Tom. Great to be back.

Tom Temin: Now, going back to the CARES Act, which seems like a million years ago, there was, I don’t know, a trillion dollars in loans, the PPP program, the Payroll Protection Plan program, which was supposed to be accompanied by all sorts of data and oversight. But not that much has really come out of all that spending yet.

Sean Moulton: Yeah, for the amount of money going out the door, you would think we would have a lot of transparency and oversight going on. But it has been pulling teeth just to get the most basic information around these wards. The administration’s initial position, and I should say the previous administration’s initial position, was that these loan recipients should be afforded a level of privacy. So anyone who got under $150,000 loan, they were withholding their name and their address. And even if you got over $150,000, they were releasing the name and address, but they weren’t going to tell you exactly how much they got. They reported them in these kind of very broad ranges. And so this made it very difficult to really hold the program accountable. Since we for the vast majority of these loans, we didn’t know who got them. And so we filed a FOIA to try and get this information, which after it was in there for some months, we finally went to court to push for it. And even after eventually the administration relented to our and other lawsuits and released names and amounts, we kept pushing because there was a lot of other detailed information, information on the loan ID, when exactly was the loan given, when is it supposed to end? What’s the status of the loan? Where exactly was this, what congressional district? What county in the state? So there were a lot of pieces of information that we get on almost every other federal award that we still weren’t getting for the PPP loans. And fortunately, we finally got just a few weeks ago, a lot of that information coming out from Small Business Administration.

Tom Temin: Yes, you’ve answered my first question is they do have the information. It’s not as if they had to set up the program so fast, they had no way of getting this type of fine grained data. They were gathering it to begin with, correct?

Sean Moulton: They definitely have released a lot of it, these loans, the PPP loans, while it’s a new program, they are essentially identical to a different loan program that SBA has run for years called the 7(a) loans, these business assistance loans. And so they really had a roadmap against which to develop into format everything for these PPP loans. I will say that there are some data points that they don’t seem to have collected, we’re still in conversations with them to see if it’s a few pieces that they’re still not disclosing. But it seems from what they’ve put out publicly, what’s now being posted on USAspending.gov, that they left things off, like whether or not the recipient has a parent company, if there’s a reportable D-U-N-S number, a Dun & Bradstreet number that the government uses to identify one recipient from another. So we’re not really sure, these are standard pieces of information that they would get any other award. And they don’t seem to be there yet. And I’m worried that for some reason, they dropped those pieces of information from the PPP loans. And I’m not sure why.

Tom Temin: And just from a technical standpoint, what was the format and usability of the way in which you got the data that you did get Finally,

Sean Moulton: they have put it out to SBA put it out in large data sets that you could download by either by state or by the whole country if you wanted all of it, and it was comma delimited. So you really could load it up into Excel and other database programs to start parsing it. And now, just I think this week is the first week I’ve seen it on USA spending.gov, which is the main government website for federal awards. And it’s been missing almost a year now that it has been held back. And it’s finally being posted about 5 million records. And so you can search it, you can map it, you can download it from there, it does give you some functionality that we’re pleased with. And I think it’s a huge step in the road to the accountability that this amount of taxpayer spending really deserves.

Tom Temin: So at this point, then it’s possible to do analysis of whether there are evidence that it was distributed fairly, that it was distributed across demographics, across congressional districts, whichever way you want to cut it. But no one’s actually, so far as I’ve seen, produced anything definitive in terms of a picture of this program. Is that something you’re planning to do next?

Sean Moulton: We are, we’re working on that right now. We have a COVID spending tracker, that Project On Government Oversight has launched that does have this information in there. It’s called COVIDtracker.pogo.org, and it allows people to take, if you just want to do the PPP, you could do that. But you can look at all kinds of spending grants contracts that are going on in relation to this. And you can search it for your zip code or your state or your county, and you can look at it on maps, along with data on demographics, percent minority population or unemployment information for your region and give you some context as to whether or not you think the spending patterns that we’re seeing make sense, relative to other points of data for the communities

Tom Temin: Weren’t a lot of these mechanisms dating back to the TARP program, and the economic relief, and the infrastructure spending that was launched in 2008- 2009 in response to that crisis.

Sean Moulton: You can draw a line from there to here, definitely. I think the real problem is that in between, we didn’t have many points of connection, because a lot of the things we did back during TARP and the Recovery Act, we let fall by the wayside, we had all sorts of reporting and accountability that we were getting, we were having recipients report in what they were doing with money. And we just kind of stopped after the crisis was over and went back to sort of normal reporting. And now we have another new crisis, and another new uptick in emergency spending. And we’ve had to kind of rebuild everything, to some extent from scratch. We’ve had a blueprint, because of the work we did during the recession. But it has been frustrating that if we had kept some of that reporting around and kept some of those lessons learned working, we would have been in a much better position from the first check going out the door.

Tom Temin: Now, the latest stimulatory action from Congress will just be direct payments to individuals, and are those the types of payments that can also be tracked and see who got those or is privacy matters come into those types of payments?

Sean Moulton: So any kind of payment, or award that goes directly to a household or an individual, there are privacy concerns that prevent the government from disclosing the identity of recipients. So flood insurance payments after a hurricane, those don’t get reported individually. So they get reported, aggregated, which can still be very helpful when you can look at, how much did different communities get. And the thing that we’re still waiting on is for some more granular level of reporting on these stimulus checks. We’ve only ever gotten state level aggregation, millions of checks to a state, and here’s how much they totaled and that’s it. So we don’t even know how they then divvy up among counties or zip codes, and whether or not if we got that information we could start to figure out based on population, especially with the new census data coming out, whether or not some communities got fewer checks than the population data suggests they should have. But no one’s been able to do that kind of analysis yet, because of the very high level aggregation that we’ve seen.

Tom Temin: Got it. Well, we’ll find out I guess, and you’ll help us find out if that data is available in fine grained fashion. And just getting back to the PPP loans. Now that you have the fine grain data, do we know the status of the loans? Is there any indication of whether people are paying them back, and so on?

Sean Moulton: That is one of the really great points that has come out from this new data that SBA has released, they do have a loan status field that they are reporting on, and it seems to be getting updated. And so we should start to see whether or not loans are being forgiven or repaid. And of course, that will raise sort of a whole new set of questions, everyone had questions about who got these loans and whether or not they deserved them, and whether or not they evenly distributed. And now the question will shift to be, who’s having their loans forgiven, and whether or not the forgiveness is being done in an equitable fashion?

Tom Temin: Right. Or whether people who maybe were a micro business that got a loan and also got a personal payment, and we’ll get a personal payment the next time around, at what point, okay already, you’re good to go.

Sean Moulton: It will be difficult to if you’re talking about individual payments, it will be difficult to figure out that sort of totality of assistance received because some of it may be protected by privacy, but in general, with more and more identities coming out and company names, addresses are often a great way to figure out if a company is getting money, same company, but under different names, which does happen. And so it is going to help us to figure out how much money in total is going to particular corporate recipients in small companies.

Tom Temin: Sean Moulton, is Senior Policy Analyst at the Project On Government Oversight. We’re glad you’re on the job and thanks for joining me.

Sean Moulton: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me, Tom.

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