Thousands of federal employees may have wrongfully obtained coronavirus bailouts by claiming to be unemployed, with some even doing so from their desks at government offices, federal investigators found.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is demanding answers, saying that the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PARC) should “recover the money that was ripped off, and grant each of those who took advantage of taxpayers by collecting jobless benefits their wish to be unemployed.”
“It is appalling for anyone fortunate enough to have the reliability of a government paycheck to take advantage of financial assistance intended to provide a lifeline to Americans who lost their jobs or were unable to work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ernst added.
A variety of government programs paid significant sums to people who said their jobs had been impacted by coronavirus in 2020. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that nearly 2,000 applications for “Lost Wages Assistance” and unemployment insurance payouts had the names of DHS employees who were ineligible since they were, of course, employed by the government agency.
In fact, of 2,393 applications filed with DHS employees’ names, only 584 could be confirmed as actually eligible for the program — and even some of those bore signs of fraud, such as incorrect amounts.
Benefits could also be paid to people whose hours were cut back because of the pandemic, but in 366 cases, the name associated with the unemployment claim actually worked overtime during the relevant period, the audit found.
In some cases, the fraud may have been the result of criminals stealing the employees’ identities and successfully filing unemployment claims with them. In others, there were indications that the employees were to blame, including that some government assistance forms were actually filled out from computers registering to the DHS computer network.
Either way, fraud was able to occur because DHS had few security measures in place for verifying assistance claims despite being tasked with keeping the nation safe.
“This occurred because FEMA hastily implemented the LWA program in 11 days, during an unprecedented pandemic, without developing program controls to prevent fraud,” auditors wrote.
Ernst wrote Friday to Michael Horowitz, chair of the PARC, that “Employees of other federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, Amtrak, and the U.S. Postal Service have also been caught fraudulently collecting unemployment payments, despite being on the federal payroll.”
On January 4, the state of Georgia’s inspector general said that “we have tentatively identified over 280 full-time state employees who erroneously received unemployment insurance (UI) payments in 2020 or 2021. These payments averaged $23,700 per employee and totaled over $6.7 million. And this is a conservative estimate.”
Those included “Two Department of Human Services DCSS/DFCS supervisors who received approximately $49,730 and $36,575” and a state employee whose job was to evaluate unemployment claims, but who himself “received approximately $31,220 and who continued to update a fraudulent UI account while employed with” the Georgia Department of Labor.
In October, the Department of Justice said it had charged five former or current IRS employees with pandemic fraud seeking more than $1 million, which they allegedly used on “cars, luxury goods, and personal travel, including trips to Las Vegas.” But the inspector general for the Small Business Administration (SBA), which administered the largest coronavirus programs, has acknowledged that so much money was paid out in such a short amount of time, and with so few safeguards, that only a tiny fraction of suspicious cases have even been investigated.
SBA doled out forgivable “loans” to business owners whose livelihood was ostensibly interrupted by COVID, known as PPP or EIDL payments. In its most recent semiannual report to Congress, PARC said that by matching the information of federal employees with these payments, six federal agencies found “tens of thousands of employees with SBA loans for which they were not eligible.”
Cross-referencing that list of names — people with stable jobs whose identities are readily known to the government because they work for it — could yield many more problematic unemployment claims at other agencies, Ernst said. “I would encourage you to conduct a similar review to determine how many unscrupulous bureaucrats wrongfully took advantage of the federal pandemic unemployment and lost wages assistance programs,” she wrote.