Justice Department Files Civil Action to Shut Down California Tax Return Preparer

The United States has filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California seeking to bar a Visalia, California tax return preparer from owning or operating a tax return preparation business and preparing federal income tax returns for others.

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    GAO performed 31 covert tests to selected sales representatives and stated that we had pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, and we requested coverage for these conditions to see if the sales representative directed GAO's undercover agents to a comprehensive Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)-compliant plan, or a PPACA-exempt plan that does not cover what we requested. As part of these tests, GAO gauged whether sales representatives engaged in potentially deceptive practices, such as making false or misleading statements about coverage or omitting material information about coverage. 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Certain types of health coverage arrangements that can be sold directly to consumers do not have to comply with some or all of PPACA's individual market requirements and, as a result, may be less expensive, but also offer more limited benefits compared to PPACA-compliant plans. Recent changes to federal law and regulations could result in the increased use of PPACA-exempt health coverage arrangements as alternatives to PPACA-compliant plans in the individual market. For example, in 2018, federal regulations expanded the availability of short term, limited duration insurance (STLDI) plans, a type of PPACA-exempt arrangement. In addition, starting January 1, 2019, individuals who fail to maintain "minimum essential coverage," as required by PPACA, no longer face a tax penalty. 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GAO was asked to obtain insights on the marketing and sales practices of insurance sales representatives who sell PPACA-exempt plans. In this report, GAO describes the results of covert tests we conducted involving selected sales representatives, when contacted by individuals stating that they had pre-existing conditions. In this regard, GAO agents performed a number of covert tests (i.e., undercover phone calls) from November 2019 through January 2020 posing as individuals needing to purchase health insurance to cover pre-existing conditions. GAO also discussed the marketing and oversight of PPACA-exempt arrangements with senior officials from federal agencies, including the FTC, and Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC)5. GAO provided a draft of this product to FTC, HHS, and NAIC for review and comment. FTC, HHS, and NAIC provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. HHS provided additional written comments on a draft of this report. For more information, contact Seto Bagdoyan at (202)-6722 or bagdoyans@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Commerce (Commerce) has a four-phase process to review companies' requests to be excluded from having to pay Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs. Commerce ensures an exclusion request is complete, accepts public input, evaluates materials submitted, and issues a final decision. Between March 2018 and November 2019, Commerce received over 106,000 requests; it rejected over 19,000 of them prior to decision due to incorrect or incomplete information. Although rejections may delay relief for requesters and can increase work for Commerce, the agency has not identified, analyzed, or taken steps to fully address the causes of these submission errors. In deciding exclusion requests, Commerce examines objections from steel and aluminum producers to find whether the requested products are reasonably available domestically in a sufficient amount. Commerce may also decide exclusion requests based on national security issues, but has not done so. While Commerce approved two-thirds of exclusion requests, it most often denied requests that had technical errors or where a domestic producer had objected. Commerce did not decide about three quarters of requests within its established timeliness guidelines, as shown in the figure, taking more than a year to decide 841 requests. Commerce took steps to improve timeliness, such as streamlining the review process for some requests and creating a new submission website, but continues not to meet guidelines and had a backlog of 28,000 requests as of November 2019. Until Commerce takes additional steps, companies will continue to encounter delays in obtaining relief. Most Steel and Aluminum Exclusion Decisions Did Not Meet the Department of Commerce's Established Timeliness Guidelines from March 2018 to November 2019 Commerce has not documented the results from any reviews of the tariffs' impacts or assigned responsibility for conducting regular reviews. GAO found evidence of changes in U.S. steel and aluminum imports and markets. For example, imports covered by the tariffs declined after an initial surge and prices dropped after significant increases in earlier years. Evaluating whether the tariffs have achieved the intended goals and how they affect downstream sectors requires more in-depth economic analysis. Without assigning responsibility for conducting regular reviews and documenting the results, Commerce may be unable to consistently assess if adjustments to the tariffs are needed. Citing national security concerns over excess global supply of steel and aluminum, in March 2018 the President placed tariffs on the import of some products using Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. At the President's direction, Commerce established a process to provide relief, or exclusion, from the tariffs. GAO was asked to review Commerce's Section 232 tariff exclusion process. This report assesses (1) the process Commerce uses to decide exclusion requests and to what degree it has accepted submitted requests; (2) what criteria and factors affected Commerce's decisions; (3) how often Commerce met established guidelines for the timely resolution of requests; and (4) the extent to which Commerce reviewed the impacts of the tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, as directed. GAO analyzed Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security and International Trade Administration records from March 2018 to November 2019, as well as data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security, and spoke with agency officials. GAO recommends that Commerce (1) identify, analyze, and respond to factors in the process that may cause submission errors; (2) take steps to improve timeliness of exclusion request decisions and address the backlog; and (3) assign responsibility for reviewing the tariffs' impact and document the results. Commerce concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or GianopoulosK@gao.gov .
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    In U.S GAO News
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In June 2019, GAO identified 10 critical federal information technology (IT) legacy systems that were most in need of modernization. These legacy systems provided vital support to agencies' missions. According to the agencies, these legacy systems ranged from about 8 to 51 years old and, collectively, cost about $337 million annually to operate and maintain. Several of the systems used older languages, such as Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). GAO has previously reported that reliance on such languages has risks, such as a rise in procurement and operating costs, and a decrease in the availability of individuals with the proper skill sets. Further, several of the legacy systems were operating with known security vulnerabilities and unsupported hardware and software. Of the 10 agencies responsible for these legacy systems, GAO reported in June 2019 that seven agencies (the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the Interior, the Treasury; as well as the Office of Personnel Management; Small Business Administration; and Social Security Administration) had documented plans for modernizing the systems (see table). Of the seven agencies with plans, only the Departments of the Interior's and Defense's modernization plans included all of the key elements identified in best practices (milestones, a description of the work necessary to complete the modernization, and a plan for the disposition of the legacy system). The other five agencies lacked complete modernization plans. The Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Transportation did not have documented modernization plans. Table: Extent to Which Agencies' Had Documented Modernization Plans for Legacy Systems That Included Key Elements, as of June 2019 Agency Included milestones to complete the modernization Described work necessary to modernize system Summarized planned disposition of legacy system Department of Defense Yes Yes Yes Department of Education n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Department of Health and Human Services n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Department of Homeland Security No Yes No Department of the Interior Yes Yes Yes Department of the Treasury Partial Yes No Department of Transportation n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Office of Personnel Management Partial Partial No Small Business Administration Yes No Yes Social Security Administration Partial Partial No Source: GAO analysis of agency modernization plans. | GAO-21-524T Agencies received a “partial” if the element was completed for a portion of the modernization. GAO stressed that, until the eight agencies established complete plans, their modernizations would face an increased risk of cost overruns, schedule delays, and project failure. Accordingly, GAO recommended that each of the eight develop such plans. However, to date, seven of the agencies had not done so. It is essential that agencies implement GAO's recommendations and these plans in order to meet mission needs, address security risks, and reduce operating costs. Why GAO Did This Study Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments. Of this amount, agencies have typically spent about 80 percent on the operations and maintenance of existing IT investments, including legacy systems. However, federal legacy systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. In May 2016, GAO reported instances where agencies were using systems that had components that were at least 50 years old or the vendors were no longer providing support for hardware or software. Similarly, in June 2019 GAO reported that several of the federal government's most critical legacy systems used outdated languages, had unsupported hardware and software, and were operating with known security vulnerabilities. GAO was asked to testify on its June 2019 report on federal agencies' legacy systems. Specifically, GAO summarized (1) the critical federal legacy systems that we identified as most in need of modernization and (2) its evaluation of agencies' plans for modernizing them. GAO also provided updated information regarding agencies' implementation of its related recommendations.
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    In U.S GAO News
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  • Information Security: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Has Made Progress, but Further Actions Are Needed to Protect Financial Data
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO FoundAlthough FDIC had implemented numerous controls in its systems, it had not always implemented access and other controls to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of its financial systems and information. FDIC has implemented controls to detect and change default user accounts and passwords in vendor-supplied software, restricted access to network management servers, developed and tested contingency plans for major systems, and improved mainframe logging controls. However, the corporation had not always (1) required strong passwords on financial systems and databases; (2) reviewed user access to financial information in its document sharing system in accordance with policy; (3) encrypted financial information transmitted over and stored on its network; and (4) protected powerful database accounts and privileges from unauthorized use. In addition, other weaknesses existed in FDIC’s controls that were intended to appropriately segregate incompatible duties, manage system configurations, and implement patches.An underlying reason for the information security weaknesses is that FDIC had not always implemented key information security program activities. To its credit, FDIC had developed and documented a security program and had completed actions to correct or mitigate 26 of the 33 information security weaknesses that were previously identified by GAO. However, the corporation had not assessed risks, documented security controls, or performed periodic testing on the programs and data used to support the estimates of losses and costs associated with the servicing and disposal of the assets of failed institutions. Additionally, FDIC had not always implemented its policies for restricting user access or for monitoring the progress of security patch installation.Because FDIC had made progress in correcting or mitigating previously reported weaknesses and had implemented compensating management and reconciliation controls during 2010, GAO concluded that FDIC had resolved the significant deficiency in internal control over financial reporting related to information security that was reported in GAO’s 2009 audit, and that the remaining unresolved issues and the new issues identified did not individually or collectively constitute a material weakness or significant deficiency in 2010. However, if left unaddressed, these issues will continue to increase FDIC’s risk that its sensitive and financial information will be subject to unauthorized disclosure, modification, or destruction.Why GAO Did This StudyThe Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has a demanding responsibility enforcing banking laws, regulating financial institutions, and protecting depositors. Because of the importance of FDIC’s work, effective information security controls are essential to ensure that the corporation’s systems and information are adequately protected from inadvertent misuse, fraudulent use, or improper disclosure.As part of its audits of the 2010 financial statements of the Deposit Insurance Fund and the Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corporation Resolution Fund administrated by FDIC, GAO assessed the effectiveness of the corporation’s controls in protecting the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of its financial systems and information. To perform the audit, GAO examined security policies, procedures, reports, and other documents; tested controls over key financial applications; and interviewed key FDIC personnel.
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  • Technology Assessment Design Handbook
    In U.S GAO News
    The Technology Assessment (TA) Design Handbook identifies tools and approaches GAO staff and others can consider in the design of robust and rigorous technology assessments. The handbook underscores the importance of TA design (Chapter 1), outlines the process of designing TAs (Chapter 2), and describes approaches for mitigating select TA design and implementation challenges (Chapter 3). While the primary audience of this handbook is GAO staff, other organizations may also find portions of this handbook useful as they consider or conduct TAs. This is an update to the handbook published in December 2019, based on the experiences of GAO teams and a review of relevant literature and comments submitted by external experts and the public between December 2019 and December 2020. The handbook identifies three general design stages, as shown in the figure below. The handbook also highlights seven cross-cutting considerations for designing TAs: the iterative nature of TA design, congressional and policymakers' interests, resources, independence, engaging internal and external stakeholders, potential challenges, and communication strategy. In addition, the handbook provides a high-level process for developing policy options, as a tool for analyzing and articulating a range of possible actions a policymaker could consider that may enhance the benefits or mitigate the challenges of a technology. Steps in developing policy options include, as applicable: determining the potential policy objective; gathering evidence; identifying possible policy options and the relevant dimensions along which to analyze them; analyzing policy options; and presenting the results of the analysis. Summary of Key Stages of Technology Assessment Design We found that GAO TAs can use a variety of design approaches and methods. The handbook includes TA design and methodology examples, along with example objectives commonly found in GAO TAs, such as: describe a technology, assess opportunities and challenges of a technology, and assess policy implications or options. For example, some GAO TAs include an objective related to describing the status and feasibility of a technology, which GAO teams have addressed by using methodologies such as expert panels, interviews, literature and document reviews, site visits, and determining the technology readiness level. Also included in the handbook are examples of TA design and implementation challenges, along with possible mitigation strategies. We identified four general categories of challenges: (1) ensuring that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers; (2) determining the policy objective and measuring potential effects; (3) researching and communicating complicated issues; and (4) engaging relevant stakeholders. For example, allowing sufficient time for writing, review, and any needed revisions is one potential mitigation strategy that could help teams write simply and clearly about technical subjects and ensure that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers. In 2019, GAO created the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team to expand its work on cutting-edge science and technology issues, and to provide oversight, insight, and foresight for science and technology. TAs can be used to strengthen decision-making, enhance knowledge and awareness, and provide early insights into the potential effects of technology. Systematically designing a TA can enhance its quality, credibility, and usefulness; ensure independence of the analysis; and ensure effective use of resources. Under Comptroller General Authority, we developed this handbook by generally following the format of the 2012 GAO methodology transfer paper, Designing Evaluations. Below is a summary of the approach we used to affirm and document TA design steps and considerations for this handbook. Reviewed select GAO documents, including Designing Evaluations (GAO-12-208G), published GAO TAs, select GAO products using policy analysis approaches to present policy options, and other GAO reports Reviewed select Office of Technology Assessment reports Reviewed select Congressional Research Service reports Reviewed select English-language literature regarding TAs and related to development and analysis of policy options Consulted with external experts and performed outreach, including holding an expert meeting to gather input on TA design, soliciting comments from external experts who contributed to GAO TAs published since 2015, and soliciting comments from the public Reviewed experiences of GAO teams that have successfully assessed and incorporated policy options into GAO products and TA design, including challenges to TA design and implementation and possible solutions GAO is not making any recommendations. For more information, contact Timothy M. Persons or Karen L. Howard at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov or howardk@gao.gov.
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  • Small Business Administration: COVID-19 Loans Lack Controls and Are Susceptible to Fraud
    In U.S GAO News
    In April 2020, the Small Business Administration (SBA) moved quickly to implement the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans that are forgivable under certain circumstances to small businesses affected by COVID-19. Given the immediate need for these loans, SBA worked to streamline the program so that lenders could begin distributing these funds as soon as possible. For example, lenders were permitted to rely on borrowers' self-certifications for eligibility and use of loan proceeds. As a result, there may be significant risk that some fraudulent or inflated applications were approved. Since May 2020, the Department of Justice has publicly announced charges in more than 50 fraud-related cases associated with PPP funds. In April 2020, SBA announced it would review all loans of more than $2 million to confirm borrower eligibility, and SBA officials subsequently stated that they would review selected loans of less than $2 million to determine, for example, whether the borrower is entitled to loan forgiveness. However, SBA did not provide details on how it would conduct either of these reviews. As of September 2020, SBA reported it was working with the Department of the Treasury and contractors to finalize the plans for the reviews. Because SBA had limited time to implement safeguards up front for loan approval, GAO believes that planning and oversight by SBA to address risks in the PPP program is crucial moving forward. SBA's efforts to expedite processing of Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL)—such as the reliance on self-certification—may have contributed to increased fraud risk in that program as well. In July 2020, SBA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported indicators of widespread potential fraud—including thousands of fraud complaints—and found deficiencies with SBA's internal controls. In response, SBA maintained that its internal controls for EIDL were robust, including checks to identify duplicate applications and verify account information, and that it had provided banks with additional antifraud guidance. The Department of Justice, in conjunction with other federal agencies, also has taken actions to address potential fraud. Since May 2020, the department has announced fraud investigations related to the EIDL program and charges against recipients related to EIDL fraud. SBA has made or guaranteed more than 14.5 million loans and grants through PPP and EIDL, providing about $729 billion to help small businesses adversely affected by COVID-19. However, the speed with which SBA implemented the programs may have increased their susceptibility to fraud. This testimony discusses fraud risks associated with SBA's PPP and EIDL programs. It is based largely on GAO's reports in June 2020 (GAO-20-625) and September 2020 (GAO-20-701) that addressed the federal response, including by SBA, to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. For those reports, GAO reviewed SBA documentation and interviewed officials from SBA, the Department of the Treasury, and associations that represent lenders and small businesses. GAO also met with officials from the SBA OIG and reviewed OIG reports. In its June 2020 report, GAO recommended that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed, but GAO believes implementation of this recommendation is essential. For more information, contact William B. Shear at (202) 512-4325 or shearw@gao.gov.
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  • Defense Reform: DOD Has Made Progress, but Needs to Further Refine and Formalize Its Reform Efforts
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in establishing valid and reliable cost baselines for its enterprise business operations and has additional efforts ongoing. DOD's January 2020 report responding to section 921 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 addressed most of the key requirements from that section but also had some limitations, which DOD acknowledged. For example, the baselines included only labor and information technology costs because DOD's financial data do not attribute costs to other specific activities required under section 921. However, DOD officials told GAO they have developed and are continuing to refine baselines for all of the department's enterprise business operations, such as financial and human resource management, to enable DOD to better track the resources devoted to these operations and the progress of reform. While still in progress, this effort shows promise in addressing the weaknesses in DOD's section 921 report and in meeting the need for consistent baselines for DOD's reform efforts that GAO has previously identified. GAO found that DOD's reported savings of $37 billion from its reform efforts and a Defense-Wide Review to better align resources are largely reflected in its budget materials; however, the savings were not always well documented or consistent with the department's definitions of reform. Specifically: DOD had limited information on the analysis underlying its savings estimates, including (1) economic assumptions, (2) alternative options, and (3) any costs of taking the actions to realize savings, such as opportunity costs. Therefore, GAO was unable to determine the quality of the analysis that led to DOD's savings decisions. Further, some of the cost savings initiatives were not clearly aligned with DOD's definitions of reform, and thus DOD may have overstated savings that came from its reform efforts rather than other sources of savings, like cost avoidance. For example, one initiative was based on the delay of military construction projects. According to DOD officials, this was done to fund higher priorities. But if a delayed project is still planned, the costs will likely be realized in a future year. Without processes to standardize development and documentation of savings and to consistently identify reform savings based on reform definitions, decision makers may lack reliable information on DOD's estimated reform savings. In coordinating its reform efforts, DOD has generally followed leading practices for collaboration, but there is a risk that this collaboration may not be sustained in light of any organizational changes that Congress or DOD may make. This risk is increased because the Office of the Chief Management Officer (OCMO) and other offices have not formalized and institutionalized these efforts through written policies or agreements. Without written policies or formal agreements that define how organizations should collaborate with regard to DOD's reform and efficiency efforts, current progress may be lost, and future coordination efforts may be hindered. DOD spends billions of dollars each year to maintain key business operations. Section 921 of the NDAA for FY 2019 established requirements for DOD to reform these operations and report on their efforts. DOD has also undertaken additional efforts to reform its operations in recent years. Section 921 called for GAO to assess the accuracy of DOD's reported cost baselines and savings, and section 1753 of the NDAA for FY 2020 called for GAO to report on the OCMO's efficiency initiatives. This report assesses the extent to which DOD has (1) established valid and reliable baseline cost estimates for its business operations; (2) established well-documented cost savings estimates reflecting its reforms; and (3) coordinated its reform efforts. GAO assessed documents supporting costs, savings estimates, and coordination efforts; interviewed DOD officials; observed demonstrations of DOD's reform tracking tools; and assessed DOD's efforts using selected criteria. GAO is making three recommendations—specifically, that DOD establish formal processes to standardize development and documentation of cost savings; ensure that reported savings are consistent with the department's definition of reform; and formalize policies or agreements on its reform efforts. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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