Four Additional Members of Los Angeles-Based Fraud Ring Indicted for Exploiting COVID-Relief Programs

A federal grand jury in Los Angeles returned a superseding indictment, which was unsealed Thursday, charging four additional individuals for their alleged participation in a scheme to submit over 150 fraudulent loan applications seeking over $21.9 million in COVID-19 relief funds guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

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    The owner of a biofuel company was sentenced to seven years in prison followed by a three-year term of supervised release and ordered to pay $10,207,000 in restitution for defrauding multiple federal agencies and customers.
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  • Oil and Gas: Interior Should Strengthen Management of Key Data Systems Used to Oversee Development on Federal Lands
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of the Interior (Interior) uses three key data systems to oversee oil and gas development on leased federal lands: the Automated Fluid Minerals Support System (AFMSS), Legacy Rehost 2000 (LR2000), and the Minerals Revenue Management Support System. Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) staff rely on data across these systems to carry out responsibilities such as processing permits for drilling wells and ensuring appropriate payments are made based on production. According to agency documents and officials, limited automated sharing of data among these systems is one of four challenges. Although the systems use some of the same information, such as lease and well numbers, they do not fully connect or communicate with each other, complicating oversight. For example, GAO calculated, based on agency estimates, that ONRR spends the equivalent of approximately 10 full-time employees in staff hours every year on conversion and error correction due to fragmented systems. Best practices call for coordinating and sharing data assets across federal agencies. Though Interior is developing replacement data systems, it does not have a finalized plan to facilitate comprehensive data sharing among them. Without such a plan, Interior risks continuing to spend staff time that could be better spent on other priorities. Example of Oil and Gas Data Shared between BLM and ONRR Data Systems Interior has not fully implemented leading practices in developing requirements to ensure the replacement systems meet user needs. Such practices have been found to improve development of federal data systems. BLM officials said they are developing replacement systems using an agile software development approach, which builds software incrementally based on users' requirements and continuously evaluates functionality, quality, and customer satisfaction. For example, BLM program offices responsible for developing systems to replace AFMSS and LR2000 stated that they meet quarterly with system stakeholders to prioritize and agree on features and functionality. However, the program offices do not have a defined process to implement the agile approach because it is not addressed in Interior's guidance on data system development. By updating the guidance to reflect how program offices can implement an agile development approach, Interior would have better assurance that its new data systems will function as intended to meet user needs and reduce budget and schedule risks. Why GAO Did This Study Development of oil and gas resources on federal lands helps supply the U.S. with energy and generates billions of dollars annually in revenues. To oversee this development, Interior relies on aging data systems, which it is planning to replace. GAO was asked to review the data systems Interior uses to oversee oil and gas development on federal lands and waters. This report (1) describes how Interior uses key data systems to oversee oil and gas development on federal lands, (2) examines challenges Interior faces in using these systems, and (3) evaluates Interior's implementation of leading practices in developing requirements for replacement systems. GAO reviewed documents, interviewed officials from federal and state agencies, visited BLM and ONRR offices in Colorado and New Mexico, and assessed Interior's implementation of relevant leading practices.
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  • Veterans Community Care Program: Improvements Needed to Help Ensure Timely Access to Care
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) established an appointment scheduling process for the Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP) that allows up to 19 days to complete several steps from VA providers creating a referral to community care staff reviewing that referral. However, as the figure shows, VA has not specified the maximum amount of time veterans should have to wait to receive care through the program. GAO previously recommended in 2013 the need for an overall wait-time measure for veterans to receive care under a prior VA community care program. Subsequent to VA not implementing this recommendation, GAO again recommended in 2018 that VA establish an achievable wait-time goal as part of its new community care program (the VCCP). Potential Allowable Wait Time to Obtain Care through the Veterans Community Care Program Note: This figure illustrates potential allowable wait times in calendar days for eligible veterans who are referred to the VCCP through routine referrals (non-emergent), and have VA medical center staff—Referral Coordination Team (RCT) and community care staff (CC staff)—schedule the appointments on their behalf. VA has not yet implemented GAO's 2018 recommendation that VA establish an achievable wait-time goal. Under the VA MISSION Act, VA is assigned responsibility for ensuring that veterans' appointments are scheduled in a timely manner—an essential component of quality health care. Given VA's lack of action over the prior 7 years implementing wait-time goals for various community care programs, congressional action is warranted to help achieve timely health care for veterans. Regarding monitoring of the initial steps of the scheduling process, GAO found that VA is using metrics that are remnants from the previous community care program, which are inconsistent with the time frames established in the VCCP scheduling process. This limits VA's ability to determine the effectiveness of the VCCP and to identify areas for improvement. In June 2019, VA implemented its new community care program, the VCCP, as required by the VA MISSION Act of 2018. Under the VCCP, VAMC staff are responsible for community care appointment scheduling; their ability to execute this new responsibility has implications for veterans receiving community care in a timely manner. GAO was asked to review VCCP appointment scheduling. This report examines, among other issues, the VCCP appointment scheduling process VA established and VA's monitoring of that process. GAO reviewed documentation, such as scheduling policies, and referral data related to the VCCP and assessed VA's relevant processes. GAO conducted site visits to five VAMCs in the first region to transition to VA's new provider network, and interviewed VAMC staff and a non-generalizable sample of community providers receiving referrals from those VAMCs. GAO also interviewed VA and contractor officials. GAO recommends that Congress consider requiring VA to establish an overall wait-time measure for the VCCP. GAO is also making three recommendations to VA, including that it align its monitoring metrics with the VCCP appointment scheduling process. VA did not concur with one of GAO's recommendations related to aligning monitoring metrics to VCCP scheduling policy time frames. GAO continues to believe this recommendation is valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Sharon M. Silas at (202) 512-7114 or silass@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Why This Matters The Department of Education gives grants to schools and organizations that provide disadvantaged students with services to help them attend college. These eight grant programs are collectively known as “TRIO”, named for the original three programs. Congress provides over $1 billion each year to these programs, but Education could do more to understand how well these grants work to help students. Key Takeaways Education could improve the information it has about TRIO programs in two areas: (1) grantee performance data, and (2) program assessments. Schools and organizations report data to Education to show how the TRIO grants they receive have been working. For example, organizations that receive grants to encourage students to complete college report on the numbers and percentages of students who received services and earned degrees.  Education evaluates grantees’ performance using the self-reported data, but has done little to verify the data. Accurate performance data are important because returning grantees can earn points for past performance in the next grant competition—increasing the likelihood that they will receive new grants. Almost 80 percent of recent TRIO grants went to returning grantees.  Therefore, grantees may have an incentive to report a more positive picture than warranted. Officials from an organization representing TRIO grantees told us there is a risk that some grantees may report inaccurate information.  As for assessing the individual TRIO programs, studies of some programs are outdated. In addition, Education has never assessed the effectiveness of three of the seven TRIO programs that serve students, and did not have any new assessments planned as of August 2020. How GAO Did This Study We analyzed data from Education about TRIO grantees and applicants. We also reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations and agency documents, and interviewed Education officials and other TRIO stakeholders. Education should take additional steps to ensure the reliability of grantees' performance data and develop a plan for assessing the effectiveness of the TRIO programs that serve students. Education generally agreed with our recommendations. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.
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  • The Nation’s Fiscal Health: Effective Use of Fiscal Rules and Targets
    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, debt held by the public reached 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's fiscal response to COVID-19 combined with the severe economic contraction from the pandemic will substantially increase federal debt. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that debt held by the public will reach 98 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2020. The nation's fiscal challenges will require attention once the economy has substantially recovered and public health goals have been attained. GAO has previously reported that a long-term plan is needed to put the government on a sustainable fiscal path. Other countries have used well-designed fiscal rules and targets—which constrain fiscal policy by controlling factors like expenditures or revenue—to contain excessive deficits. For example, Germany's constitution places limits on its deficits. The U.S. federal government has previously enacted fiscal rules, such as those in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, current fiscal rules have not effectively addressed the misalignment between spending and revenues over time. GAO identified key considerations to help Congress if it were to adopt new fiscal rules and targets, as part of a long-term plan for fiscal sustainability (see table). Key Considerations for Designing, Implementing, and Enforcing Fiscal Rules and Targets Setting clear goals and objectives can anchor a country's fiscal policy. Fiscal rules and targets can help ensure that spending and revenue decisions align with agreed-upon goals and objectives. The weight given to tradeoffs among simplicity, flexibility, and enforceability depends on the goals a country is trying to achieve with a fiscal rule. In addition, there are tradeoffs between the types and combinations of rules, and the time frames over which the rules apply. The degree to which fiscal rules and targets are binding, such as being supported through a country's constitution or nonbinding political agreements, can impact their permanence, as well as the extent to which ongoing political commitment is needed to uphold them. Integrating fiscal rules and targets into budget discussions can contribute to their ongoing use and provide for a built-in enforcement mechanism. The budget process can include reviews of fiscal rules and targets. Fiscal rules and targets with limited, well-defined exemptions, clear escape clauses for events such as national emergencies, and adjustments for the economic cycle can help a country address future crises. Institutions supporting fiscal rules and targets need clear roles and responsibilities for supporting their implementation and measuring their effectiveness. Independently analyzed data and assessments can help institutions monitor compliance with fiscal rules and targets. Having clear, transparent fiscal rules and targets that a government communicates to the public and that the public understands can contribute to a culture of fiscal transparency and promote fiscal sustainability for the country. Source: GAO analysis of literature review and interviews. | GAO-20-561 Our nation faces serious challenges at a time when the federal government is highly leveraged in debt by historical norms. The imbalance between revenue and spending built into current law and policy have placed the nation on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Fiscal rules and targets can be used to help frame and control the overall results of spending and revenue decisions that affect the debt. GAO was asked to review fiscal rules and targets. This report (1) assesses the extent to which the federal government has taken action to contribute to long-term fiscal sustainability through fiscal rules and targets, and (2) identifies key considerations for designing, implementing, and enforcing fiscal rules and targets in the U.S. GAO compared current and former U.S. fiscal rules to literature on the effective use of rules and targets; reviewed CBO reports and relevant laws; and interviewed experts. GAO conducted case studies of national fiscal rules in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Congress should consider establishing a long-term fiscal plan that includes fiscal rules and targets, such as a debt-to-GDP target, and weigh GAO's key considerations to ensure proper design, implementation, and enforcement of these rules and targets. The Department of the Treasury and other entities provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin, at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@gao.gov.
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  • Forced Labor Imports: DHS Increased Resources and Enforcement Efforts, but Needs to Improve Workforce Planning and Monitoring
    In U.S GAO News
    Since 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has increased its resources to enforce a prohibition on importing goods made with forced labor, but has not determined its workforce needs. CBP formed the Forced Labor Division in 2018 to lead its efforts, and increased expenditures for the division from roughly $1 million in fiscal year 2018 to $1.4 million in fiscal year 2019. However, CBP has not assessed and documented the staffing levels or skills needed for the Forced Labor Division. For example, the division suspended some ongoing investigations due to a staff shortage and has plans to expand and train its workforce; however, the division has not assessed the number, type, locations, or specialized skills of positions it needs to achieve programmatic results. Without assessing its workforce needs, the division lacks reasonable assurance that it has the right number of people, with the right skills, in the right places. CBP has increased forced labor investigations and civil enforcement actions, but managers lack complete and consistent data summarizing cases. CBP detained shipments under 13 Withhold Release Orders (WRO) from 2016 through 2019, as shown in the figure below. However, the Forced Labor Division uses incomplete and inconsistent summary data to monitor its investigations. For example, data were missing on the sources of evidence collected for almost all active cases. Incomplete and inconsistent summary data on the characteristics and status of cases may hinder managers' effective monitoring of case progress and enforcement efforts. Figure: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Forced Labor Withhold Release Orders, 2016 through 2019 With regard to criminal violations, DHS's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has increased its resources to investigate allegations of forced labor, including those related to U.S. imports. ICE coordinates criminal investigations of forced labor, conducted in the U.S. and abroad. ICE reported spending about $40 million on forced labor investigations in fiscal year 2019, an increase of over 50 percent since 2016. Forced labor investigations often involve a range of criminal violations, including violations that are not related to the importation of goods. As such, reported expenditures include costs for cases on related issues, such as human trafficking. Forced labor is a global problem in which individuals are exploited to perform labor or services. The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labor generates profits of $150 billion a year globally. CBP is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits the importation of goods made with forced labor. CBP has authority to detain shipments when information indicates that forced labor produced the goods. ICE is responsible for investigating potential crimes related to forced labor, and importers may be subject to prosecution. GAO was asked to review the status of DHS resources for implementing the Section 307 prohibition on forced labor imports, following an amendment of the law in 2016. This report examines (1) the extent to which CBP assessed agency needs for the enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports, (2) the outcome of CBP enforcement activities and monitoring of such efforts, and (3) ICE resources for investigations on forced labor. GAO reviewed CBP and ICE documents and data, and interviewed agency officials. This is a public version of a sensitive report GAO issued in July 2020. Information that CBP deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO is making three recommendations, including that CBP assess the workforce needs of the Forced Labor Division, and improve its forced labor summary case data. CBP concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states ensure compliance with the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) primarily through inspections of farms. The states collect some information—such as the number of inspections they conduct—and provide that information to EPA as part of cooperative agreements between EPA and the states. The extent of use of the designated representative provision of the WPS, and its effect on the availability of pesticide information, are not known because EPA does not collect information on the use of the provision and does not coordinate with states to do so. EPA's guidance to states for conducting inspections encourages, but does not require, state inspectors to ask farmers and farmworkers about whether a designated representative has been used. EPA officials said that the agency has not asked states to collect information on the provision because the agency has focused on compliance with other aspects of the WPS. By coordinating with states, through the cooperative agreements or some another mechanism, to collect information on the use of the designated representative provision, EPA would be better positioned to determine whether the provision is serving its intended purpose. Some stakeholders have raised concerns about potential misuse of pesticide information, such as other farmers using the information obtained by a designated representative to gain a competitive advantage. However, EPA officials, state officials, and stakeholders told us they did not know of any instance in which a person serving as a designated representative misused the pesticide information obtained from farmers. Neither EPA's guidance nor its website explain the agency's expectations for appropriate use or describe how such information could be misused. EPA officials said that the agency has not explained what constitutes misuse. By explaining, in the agency's guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, EPA's expectations about appropriate use of pesticide information obtained by designated representatives, including the misuse of such information, the agency could ensure designated representatives understand the importance of the information in reducing the consequences of pesticide exposure. Farmworkers Picking Strawberries at a Farm The use of pesticides contributes to U.S. agricultural productivity by protecting crops against pests or weeds, but this use may pose risks to human health. To reduce the consequences of pesticide exposure to farmworkers' health, EPA revised the WPS in 2015 to include a provision that allows a farmworker to identify a person who can request, for their benefit, certain pesticide information from their employer—this is called the designated representative provision. This report examines (1) what is known about the extent of use and effect of the designated representative provision on the availability of pesticide information and (2) what is known about any misuse of information obtained through the provision. GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and guidance, and interviewed officials from EPA and 13 selected states about how they implement and oversee compliance with the standard. GAO also interviewed stakeholders, such as farmer groups and farmworker advocacy groups. GAO is making two recommendations to EPA to (1) coordinate with states to collect information on the use of the designated representative provision and (2) take steps to explain, in guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, the agency's expectations about appropriate use of pesticide information obtained by a designated representative and describe potential misuse of such information. EPA agreed, in part, to both recommendations. For more information, contact Steve D. Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.
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  • Biomedical Research: NIH Should Publicly Report More Information about the Licensing of Its Intellectual Property
    In U.S GAO News
    Research conducted at Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) labs led to 4,446 U.S. patents owned by the agency covering a range of inventions from 1980 through 2019. During that period, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had 93 patents—2 percent of the total—that contributed to the successful development of 34 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and brought to market, including vaccines and treatments for cancer. These 34 drugs were developed by pharmaceutical companies and were associated with 32 licenses granted to them by NIH. As shown in the figure, these licenses have generated up to $2 billion in royalty revenue for NIH since 1991, when FDA approved the first of these drugs. Three licenses generated more than $100 million each for the agency. Royalties from NIH Licenses of Inventions Associated with FDA-Approved Drugs, 1991 to February 2020 When licensing its inventions, NIH prioritizes the likelihood that the licensee can successfully develop a drug by considering such factors as technical expertise and the ability to raise capital. Consistent with federal interpretation of technology transfer statutory authorities, NIH does not consider the affordability of the resulting drug. NIH provides limited information to the public about its licensing activities. For example, the agency does not report which of its patents are licensed or release metrics that would enable the public to evaluate how licensing affects patient access to resulting drugs. Increasing the transparency of its licensing activities could improve the public’s and policymakers’ understanding of NIH’s management of its intellectual property. HHS monitors for unauthorized use of its inventions (infringement) and has taken steps to protect its rights. HHS relies primarily on inventors at its labs to monitor for potential infringement and generally encourages potential infringers to license the inventions. If cases proceed to litigation, HHS relies on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to protect its rights. Since 2009, HHS has worked with DOJ to defend its intellectual property in several cases in the U.S. and abroad and has referred one case to DOJ for litigation against an alleged infringer. HHS labs conduct research that can contribute to the development of new life-saving drugs. HHS may grant rights to its inventions by licensing the patents to pharmaceutical companies that conduct the additional development activities and testing necessary to bring drugs to market. Public health experts and patients’ rights advocates have raised concerns about the prices of drugs developed with federal support. GAO was asked to review HHS’s management of its intellectual property. This report examines (1) the extent to which HHS-owned intellectual property has contributed to the development of FDA-approved drugs, (2) what is known about the licenses associated with FDA-approved drugs, (3) factors NIH prioritizes when licensing its inventions and information about licensing it makes public, and (4) steps HHS has taken to protect its rights. GAO reviewed relevant laws and agency documents, analyzed patent and licensing data, and interviewed HHS officials, academic experts, industry representatives, and nongovernmental organizations. GAO is making two recommendations, including that NIH provide more information to the public about the licensing of its intellectual property. HHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations. For more information, contact John Neumann, (202) 512-6888, NeumannJ@gao.gov.
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  • Department of Justice Announces Charges of North Korean and Malaysia Nationals for Bank Fraud, Money Laundering and North Korea Sanctions Violations
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced a criminal complaint charging Ri Jong Chol, Ri Yu Gyong, North Korean nationals, and Gan Chee Lim, a Malaysia national. The three were charged with conspiracy to violate North Korean Sanctions Regulations and bank fraud, and conspiracy to launder funds. The defendants allegedly established and utilized front companies that transmitted U.S. dollar wires through the United States to purchase commodities on behalf of North Korean customers.
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  • Laredo man admits to smuggling meth in fire extinguishers
    In Justice News
    A 40-year-old Laredo man [Read More…]