Guest Post: The Coalition for Integrity’s New Report on How To Ensure Oversight of U.S. Coronavirus Response Funds

Today’s guest post is by Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity, a civil society advocacy organization focused on corruption in the United States.

The U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act), enacted in late March to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, provides over $2 trillion in various forms of relief, including over $600 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans to small businesses, and approximately $500 billion in additional discretionary Treasury Department loans. To ensure appropriate allocation of these funds, and to reduce the risks of corruption, fraud, and other forms of misappropriation, transparency and oversight are essential. Indeed, we have already seen the perils of a lack of transparency in awarding the PPP loans. Instead of prioritizing businesses who were in danger of failing without an injection of cash, many large chains and other well-funded companies received loans. Further, there are reports that businesses owned by members of Congress received money under the program, which raises conflict of interest concerns.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has resisted even relatively modest measures to assure transparency and accountability in the allocation of CARES Act funds. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin previously announced that the names of PPP recipients would not be made public, making the misguided claim that the identity of PPP loan recipients is the companies’ confidential and proprietary information. But taxpayer have a right to know where their money is going (a principle the U.S. vigorously applies when sending foreign aid dollars overseas). Eventually Secretary Mnuchin relented to pressure to change course, and agreed to provide information regarding PPP loans in excess of $150,000. Yet the administration’s resistance to transparency and oversight has continued, as demonstrated by alarming reports that the Treasury Department’s Office of General Counsel has issued a legal opinion claiming that the Department has no obligation to provide key information to oversight officials, including the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), about the CARES Act’s PPP and discretionary business loan programs.

These reports underscore the importance of keeping up the pressure on Congress and the Administration to take appropriate steps to ensure genuine transparency and accountability in the allocation of pandemic response funds. Congress in particular may need to add new legal provisions to address the flaws in the oversight system. The Coalition for Integrity recently released a new report, entitled Oversight is Better than Hindsight: Anti-Corruption Recommendations for the CARES Act, which documents the current oversight gaps in the CARES Act and presents a set of recommendations on how best to close those gaps. These recommendations include, among others: increasing appropriations for oversight bodies, enacting for-cause removal protections for Inspectors General, enhancing whistleblower protections, requiring the Federal Reserve to comply with Sunshine’s Act meeting transcript or recording requirements, and appointing a chairperson to the Congressional Oversight Commission. The report also highlights a number of measures that the Administration can and should take, including better and more effective cooperation with the oversight bodies, creating a public-facing website with detailed information on contracts awarded under the stimulus program (as was done by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversaw the stimulus funding enacted in response to the 2007-2008 financial crisis), and ensuring more generally that agencies are responsive rather than resistant to requests and recommendations from oversight bodies.

Effective oversight is not a partisan political issue. Misuse of stimulus money will compound the country’s collective misery at a time when millions are already suffering from the grave health and economic effects of the pandemic. In this context, insufficient public transparency and a lack of full cooperation with oversight bodies should worry us all.

 

Should International Organizations Like the IMF Require More Anticorruption Conditions on Their Pandemic Emergency Funding?

In response to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are taking emergency measures to secure and distribute necessary medical equipment to hospitals, front-line medical workers, and at-risk groups. Moreover, to respond to the dangerous economic crisis that has resulted from stay-at-home orders and other essential public health measures, national governments have rapidly adopted new fiscal programs and other measures that have pushed trillions of dollars out the door. Multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have also stepped in to assist countries that have seen their foreign exchange inflows drying up due to a variety of factors associated with the pandemic (including lower international oil prices, lack of tourism receipts, and declining remittance flows). These countries urgently need for foreign exchange to purchase critical medical supplies and equipment from abroad. The IMF has existing facilities for providing emergency funding to address balance of payments shortfalls in times of emergency (the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI)), and has  already begun providing funding under these programs, with more funds likely on the way. In contrast to other IMF programs, there are relatively few conditions that recipients need to satisfy up front in order to have access to RCF/RFI financing.

The global anticorruption community has been understandably worried about the risks that emergency response funds could be misappropriated or mismanaged, which would impede the collective public health efforts. (See, for example, the pieces collected here and here). For example, Transparency International has pushed for open data publishing on public procurement, and Sarah Steingrüber, the Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption, recently made the case on GAB for the establishment of oversight task forces and for directing some donor funds to enhancing anticorruption safeguards (i.e. public financial management improvements and CSO funding). With respect to the IMF in particular, a group of 99 civil society organizations (CSOs) sent an open letter to the IMF, pushing back against what they characterized as the Fund’s “retroactive approach” to anticorruption efforts, and instead called for loan conditions that would require recipient governments to (1) receive all IMF funds in a single Treasury account, (2) hire independent auditors within six months of disbursement, (3) publish a procurement plan with names and beneficial ownership information, and (4) repeal or amend laws that prevent groups from safely monitoring government spending.

While nobody seriously questions the importance of reducing corruption and other forms of “leakage” of funds spent to fight the coronavirus and its associated economic dislocation, much of the emerging commentary from the anticorruption community seems to lack a sufficient appreciation of, and engagement with, the trade-offs between controlling leakage and ensuring a sufficiently rapid response. The CSOs’ open letter to the IMF is an illustrative example of the apparent neglect of these trade-offs. Continue reading

Guest Post: Anonymous Companies Are Undermining Mexico’s Public Health

Today’s guest post is by Miguel Ángel Gómez Jácome, the Communications Coordinator at the Mexican civil society organization Impunidad Cero (Zero Impunity).

The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected millions of people. (As of the time this piece was initially drafted, around 2 million people had been infected; the exponential spread of the virus means that by the time this piece is published, that number is likely to be much higher.) And while Mexico has not yet been as severely impacted as other countries, official statistics (which likely understate the true prevalence) already report thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths. To confront this problem, Mexico, like other countries, will need to marshal its resources effectively. Unfortunately, though, Mexico’s ability to manage the COVID-19 epidemic is threatened by Mexico’s epidemic of embezzlement in the health sector, much of it facilitated by anonymous shell companies. This widespread corruption drains away vital public resources needed to combat public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, two civil society organizations (Justicia Justa (Just Justice) and Impunidad Cero (Zero Impunity)), documented the extent of the problem in a research report entitled Fake Invoices: The Health Sector Epidemic. The research found that between 2014 and 2019, 837 shell companies issued 22,933 fake invoices to 90 health institutions across the country (in 30 of Mexico’s 32 states, as well as the federal government), ultimately embezzling a total of over 4 billion pesos (roughly $176 million US dollars) from the health sector—an amount that could have paid for around 80,000 hospital beds or between 3,400 and 6,900 ventilators. (To put this in context, Mexico currently has 5,000 ventilators in the whole country, and the government is looking to acquire 5,000 more.) And the problem is only getting bigger: According to Mexico’s Tax Administration authority (the SAT), the number of anonymous shell companies in the country has increased from 111 in 2014 to over 9,000 in 2020.

To crack down on the abuse of shell companies to embezzle public funds from the health sector (as well as other sectors), the authors of the Fake Invoices report propose three responses: Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Sarah Steingrüber

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Sarah Steingrüber, an independent consultant on corruption and public health issues. Among her other activities in this area, she currently serves as the global health lead for the CurbingCorruption web platform, and was the co-author of the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre’s report on Corruption in the Time of COVID-19: A Double-Threat for Low Income Countries. Much of our conversation naturally focuses on how corruption and related issues may intersect with the coronavirus pandemic and its response, in particular (1) misappropriation of relief spending, and (2) how some corrupt leaders may use the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to eliminate checks and oversight. A central tension we discuss is how the urgency of emergency situations affects the sorts of measures that are appropriate, and draws on lessons from prior health crises such as the Ebola outbreak in West African in 2013-2016. We then discuss other more general issues related to corruption and health, such as how the monetization and privatization of health may contribute to undue private influence on decision-making processes in the health sector.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–May 2020 Update

Over three years ago, in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most significant updates this month (as was also the case last month) concern the ways in which the financial interests of the Trump Organization may intersect with the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Although the main criticisms of the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic have focused on the administration’s delays, misinformation, and general incompetence, some critics have highlighted suggestive evidence that the personal business interests of President Trump, his family, and their close associates may be influencing the administration’s approach to the pandemic. Critics have pointed to the following concerns:

    • Resistance to stay-at-home orders: There is some suspicion that the Trump administration’s slow and equivocal response to the pandemic may have been influenced by President Trump’s desire to avoid hurting the hospitality industry, one of the Trump Organization’s major lines of business. Media reports suggest that President Trump pushed for an end to social distancing by mid-April in part because of the adverse effect social distancing has had on his own hotels and resorts, and although President Trump ultimately relented and extended the social distancing guidelines through at least the end of April, he renewed his push for states to lift their stay-at-home orders in mid-May, despite the fact that states had not hit any of the targets laid out in the federal government’s own guidance on when it would be safe to reopen the economy. The potential conflict of interest was highlighted by the fact that on May 10, President Trump retweeted an announcement from the Trump Organization’s golf club in LA that it would be re-opening, accompanied by President Trump’s declaration that it’s “great to see our Country starting to open up again.” Former hear of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub characterized this tweet as “shameless, corrupt, and repugnant.”
    • Scope of travel ban: Critics highlighted the fact that the 30-day ban on travel from Europe that President Trump announced on March 11 initially excluded the United Kingdom and Ireland, where Trump owns hotels and golf courses, though a few days later the Administration extended the travel restrictions to cover both countries.
    • Access to economic relief funds: President Trump’s financial interests may have influenced the administration’s response to the pandemic’s economic costs. In early March 2020, President Trump mentioned the possibility of a bailout for the hotel industry, and later that month, as Congress and the administration were negotiating an economic relief package, President Trump refused to rule out the possibility that his personal properties would accept relief funds under this package. However, the bill that ultimately passed, known as the CARES Act, however, banned President Trump’s properties from receiving government support. Nevertheless, when signing the legislation, President Trump issued a statement that suggested his administration would not treat the portion of the legislation that requires the newly-created Inspector General to report to Congress without presidential approval as legally binding, a move that raises concerns about both transparency and compliance. Furthermore, despite the fact that the CARES Act bars businesses owned by President Trump or other government officials from receiving stimulus funding, the Trump administration has funneled COVID-19 small business loans to companies connected to Trump and his allies. Separately from CARES Act relief, the Trump Organization, which leases the Old Post Office Building in Washington D.C. from the General Services Administration (GSA) for the Trump International Hotel, has reportedly asked the GSA for relief from its rent payments, a request that highlights the inherent conflict of interest in the President’s family company renting a building from the federal government.
    • Promotion of particular COVID-19 tests and treatments. For several weeks, President Trump aggressively promoted hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine is produced by Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company. Three Trump family trusts have small investments in Sanofi, major Republican donor Ken Fisher owns a majority stake, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross used to run a fund that invested in Sanofi. Rick Bright, the former head of the U.S. Government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that he was pressured to give government contracts to political cronies, including to Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, a pharmaceutical company that produced hydroxychloroquine, because the company’s CEO was friends with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Another troubling example is the Trump Administration’s selection of a firm called OSCAR Health—a company founded by Jared Kushner’s brother and formerly partially owned by Jared Kushner—to develop a website to facilitate coronavirus testing. (The website was developed but quickly scrapped, and in the end OSCAR Health was not paid for its efforts.)

 

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Guest Post: What the U.S. Congress Must Do To Ensure Adequate Oversight of COVID-19 Relief Spending

Today’s guest post is by Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity, a civil society advocacy organization focused on corruption in the United States.

We are facing an unprecedented crisis, and governments around the world have responded with unprecedented actions. In the United States, Congress has responded to the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis with the $2 trillion CARES Act and the subsequent $484 billion replenishment; still more legislation, allocating even more money for crisis response, is under discussion. When this much money is in play, oversight and fraud prevention are essential. There are already reports of PPP loans meant for small businesses going to larger companies, scammers targeting small business owners, stimulus checks being sent to deceased people, and several other COVID 19 scams. But the current safeguards for preventing fraud, corruption, and abuse in COVID-19 relief spending are woefully insufficient. As negotiations over further relief packages continue, those in Congress who care about government integrity—and the effectiveness of these trillion-dollar programs in achieving their objectives—should insist on correcting these deficiencies. In particular, here are five crucial steps that Congress can and should take to ensure that COVID-19 relief spending helps its intended beneficiaries rather than lining the pockets of grifters and grafters: Continue reading

Heightened Transparency of Stock Trading by Public Officials Could Help Convey Reliable Information in Crises that the Public Deserves to Know

On February 7, 2020, there were 34,876 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, but none in the United States. On that day, Fox News published a reassuring opinion piece co-authored by Republican Senator Richard Burr, arguing that the US is prepared to face any outbreak. Around February 13, a couple of days before the first confirmed cases in the US were discovered and before the stock markets began to plunge, Burr sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stocks, many of which were in the hotel industry. Senator Burr’s stock sale was not public at the time; the sales were first reported by ProPublica only a month later.

We do not yet know whether Senator Burr’s decision to dump his stocks was based on confidential government information to which he had special access. On the one hand, new information on the Covid-19 pandemic was coming out every day, and perhaps Senator Burr was simply one of many investors who changed their minds regarding the outbreak and were lucky to exit the market in time. On the other hand, Senator Burr is the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was receiving regular briefings on the coronavirus situation, so the suspicions towards him are understandable. (It also didn’t help matters that a few weeks after the publication of his op-ed Senator Burr told wealthy donors in a closed-door meeting that the Covid-19 outbreak “is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic,” but never revised his previous public reassurances.) Whether justifiably or not, Senator Burr was harshly criticized (including on this blog), with many calling for his resignation, and he has been sued for insider trading by a shareholder of one of the companies whose stocks he dumped. In addition to the criticism leveled at Senator Burr, several commentaries, including Cristina’s post on this blog, have argued that this incident demonstrates the need to amend the 2012 STOCK Act to impose stricter limitations on the freedom of senior US government officials, including Members of Congress, to trade in stocks.

My perspective is somewhat different. While I acknowledge the legitimate concerns that motivated calls to strengthen prohibitions on stock trading by government officials, in my view regulation should be more focused on ensuring the transparency of those trades, rather than on further limiting or blocking stock trading.

Continue reading

Guest Post: COVID-19 and Corruption–Two Risks and One Opportunity

Today’s guest post is from Peter Glover, Program officer for the Center for International Private Enterprise’s Anti-Corruption and Governance Center.

The immediate consequences of COVID-19 are visible and visceral for everybody, even as some feel the effects more than others. In addition to reshaping everyday life, COVID-19 will also transform global governance—including with respect to corruption and related issues. In this post I want to emphasize three ways that the COVID-19 pandemic will interact with corruption: Continue reading

More Compilations of Sources on the Corruption-Coronavirus Relationship

Yesterday, I posted an update to my small and incomplete compilation of sources on the relationship between corruption and the coronavirus pandemic. It turns out that (unsurprisingly) I’m not the only one trying to pull together sources on this topic into one place, so I wanted to highlight a couple of other sites where interested readers can find lists of sources (with links) to materials on this topic:

  • Professor Heather Marquette’s blog (“The Politics of Conflict and Governance”) has a useful list of “What we’re reading on conflict and governance–Covid-19 edition.” The most recent update (unless there’s been something new within the last 24 hours) is from April 9, but my impression is that Professor Marquette will be updating this semi-regularly. The scope of the sources she’s compiled is quite a bit broader than what I’ve been including in my lists, as Professor Marquette’s reading list covers governance issues related to Covid-19 generally, whereas my list is a bit more narrowly focused on corruption issues specifically.
  • The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) has a compilation on “Corruption and Covid-19: Articles, Blogs, and Resources,” which includes links to a number of commentaries on this issue, as well as links to other useful general resources. The last update (as of 24 hours ago) was on April 15, but it appears that this site will also be regularly updated.

I’m sure there are others out there, and I encourage readers to get in touch with me if there are any other resources like this that I should share with GAB’s audience. Good luck everybody, and stay safe.

Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Update

A couple weeks back, I said I was thinking about trying to collect and collate the ever-increasing number of commentaries on the relationship between corruption and the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Several readers wrote to encourage me to continue, so I’m doing another update. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, since commentaries in on the corruption-coronavirus connection, like the virus itself, seem to be growing at an exponential rate. I certainly don’t make any claims to comprehensiveness (and thus I beg the forgiveness of anyone whose contributions I’ve neglected to include in the list below). But here are some new pieces I came across, followed by a chronological list of corruption-coronavirus commentaries to date: Continue reading