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Independent inspectors general (IGs) safeguard our tax dollars. The federal government will spend an unprecedented trillions of taxpayer dollars in response to the coronavirus crisis. With history as our guide, we know that opportunistic fraudsters will get their hands on large amounts of this money. Now more than ever, we need federal IGs. IGs are the independent, nonpartisan fiscal watchdogs created by Congress in 1978 to protect the public’s money and safety.
Over 70 federal agencies have an IG. IGs safeguard the billions of dollars that their agencies spend on a vast array of government programs. For example, in connection with the fight against COVID-19, these dollars fund purchases of medical equipment, contracts for hospital beds at military hospitals, grants supporting vaccine development by private entities, the recently enacted Paycheck Protection Program, and more. While IGs may not be as visible and well known to the public as the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), they play a critical role in investigating fraud cases and enforcing the law.
Partisan attacks, such as the recent actions of the President, undermine the ability of strong, independent IGs to do their jobs and protect us. President Trump recently fired two IGs – Michael Atkinson (IG for the intelligence community) and Glenn Fine (acting IG for the Department of Defense). Mr. Fine was slated to play a key role overseeing the disbursement of the $2.2 trillion contained in the initial coronavirus relief bills.
The President also has publicly attacked the integrity of other members of the IG community, including Christi Grimm, the Principal Deputy IG at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS is the agency that is home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), among others. As such, HHS is the agency on the front lines of the coronavirus battlefield.
It isn’t supposed to be like this. Congress passed the IG Act in 1978, shortly after Watergate, to enable independent, nonpartisan IGs to act as fiscal watchdogs and protect taxpayers from fraud. IGs are to be appointed “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations.’’ In 2008, during the Great Recession, the law was strengthened and expanded. The cost of the current crisis is far outstripping the cost of the Great Recession.
By law, a President is required to give Congress 30-days’ notice before removing an IG and explain the reasons. Until now, a president has rarely removed an IG. Indeed, it has been customary for IGs to continue to serve regardless of who occupies the White House. Fighting fraud is widely recognized to be an apolitical endeavor on behalf of taxpayers.
We all depend on nonpartisan independent IGs to protect the public fisc as well as public health and safety. IGs are pivotal to whistleblowers’ and the DOJ’s use of the False Claims Act and other statutes to recover billions of fraudulently obtained government funds every year. In fact, DOJ acknowledges that “agency Offices of Inspector General” contributed to its recovery of over $3 billion in FY2019. In DOJ’s press release announcing its 2019 recoveries, Jody Hunt, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, praised “the extraordinary efforts of the men and women throughout the government committed to protecting the federal fisc and the integrity of the government’s programs.” Inspectors general and their staff are key among those men and women.
While the amounts of money at stake in this crisis are staggering, so too is the risk to public health. Fraudsters put us all at risk with dangerous, unproven, or counterfeit products. To ensure public health, safe and effective treatments, testing, and vaccines must be available to the public.
The COVID-19 crisis has already wrought more damage than 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the Great Recession combined. The final toll is not yet known. Indeed, in a mere two months, we are expected to surpass the U.S. military death toll of the Vietnam War. Businesses are devastated. Unemployment is at record highs. Costs to the economy are growing. Our health care systems and programs are strapped as never before. Taxpayers are already on the hook for trillions of dollars in extra spending with more to come.
Given these high stakes, we need strong, independent IGs on the battlefield. They will help protect our money and our lives. The last thing we should be doing is undermining IGs and ignoring the IG Act. Otherwise, we will be fighting coronavirus and the coming wave of fraud with one hand tied behind our backs.