Man Pleads Guilty to COVID-19 Relief Fraud Scheme

A Washington man pleaded guilty today to perpetrating a scheme to fraudulently obtain COVID-19 relief guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

More from: January 21, 2021

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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides veterans with prosthetic services to assist with their mobility, vision, and hearing needs. The proportion of prosthetics VHA provided to female veterans has been small compared to the share provided to male veterans. However, in fiscal years 2015 to 2019, this proportion grew from 6.8 percent to 7.9 percent and accounted for about $889.1 million of the $15.4 billion total cost of prosthetics. Artificial limbs comprised a relatively small number of the total prosthetics VHA provided to veterans in fiscal years 2015 to 2019; however, veterans who use artificial limbs have complex needs and are significant users of health care services. VHA provided prosthetic services to a small but growing female veteran amputee population (almost 3 percent of veteran amputees in fiscal year 2019), who were generally younger than male veteran amputees. VHA has established an individualized patient care approach in its Amputation System of Care that seeks to address the prosthetic needs of each veteran, including accounting for gender-specific factors. VHA officials said that using a standardized, multidisciplinary approach across VA medical facilities also helps them incorporate the concerns and preferences of female veterans. For example, veterans are provided care by a team that includes a physician, therapist, prosthetist (clinician who helps evaluate prosthetic needs and then designs, fabricates, fits, and adjusts artificial limbs), and other providers as needed. Female veteran amputees GAO spoke with at one VA medical facility said they were satisfied with their VHA care. They also noted a lack of commercially available prosthetic options that VHA providers can use to meet women's needs. Examples of Female Veterans' Artificial Limb Prosthetics Women are generally studied less than their male counterparts in prosthetic and amputee rehabilitation research. VHA designated prosthetics for female veterans a national research priority in 2017, and has funded eight related studies as of May 2020: four pertain to lower limb amputation, three pertain to upper limb amputation, and one pertains to wheelchairs. VHA officials noted the importance of this research priority and the ongoing challenge of recruiting study participants due to the small female veteran population. VHA researchers said they employ various tactics to address this challenge, such as using multi-site studies and recruiting participants from the non-veteran population. Women are the fastest growing veteran subpopulation, with the number of female veterans using VHA health care services increasing 29 percent from 2014 to 2019. Female veterans accounted for an estimated 10 percent of the total veteran population in fiscal year 2019. They are eligible to receive a full range of VHA health care services, including obtaining prosthetics. House Report 115-188 included a provision for GAO to review VHA's prosthetic services for female veterans. This report examines 1) trends in prosthetics provided by VHA to female veterans; 2) characteristics of the female veteran population with limb loss and how VHA provides prosthetic services to these veterans through its Amputation System of Care; and 3) VHA's research efforts and the challenges that exist in studying prosthetics for female veterans with limb loss. GAO analyzed VHA documents, as well as data from fiscal years 2015 to 2019 on prosthetics and veterans with amputations. GAO interviewed agency officials from VHA central office and officials and female veteran amputees at two VA medical facilities selected for expertise in amputation care and prosthetics research activities. In addition, GAO interviewed VHA researchers conducting studies on prosthetics for female veterans. GAO provided a draft of this report to VA. VA provided general and technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or farbj@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Energy (DOE) has retrieved nuclear waste from all the tanks at C-farm—the first of 18 tank farms (i.e., groupings of tanks) at DOE's Hanford site in southeastern Washington State. The waste is a byproduct of decades of nuclear weapons production and research. DOE is obligated under agreements with the state's Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move waste from older, single-shell tanks to newer, more durable, double-shell tanks and ultimately to dispose of it. Example of a Tank and of Waste in a Tank at Hanford DOE intends to “close” the C-farm by leaving the nearly empty tanks in place and filling them with grout. However, DOE faces challenges, in part because this approach depends on: (1) DOE's determination under its directives that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste (HLW) and (2) Ecology's approval. DOE has started the determination process, but as GAO has previously found, DOE is likely to face a lawsuit because of questions about its legal authority. Ecology has raised concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not independently reviewed DOE's analysis for this determination. By Congress clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW, DOE would be in a better position to move forward. Another challenge DOE faces in closing C-farm is how to address contaminated soil caused by leaks or discharges of waste from the tanks. DOE and Ecology officials do not agree on a process for evaluating contaminated soil at C-farm or on what role NRC should play in this process. They interpret their agreement differently, particularly regarding whether NRC must review DOE's analysis of contaminated soil. If the two parties cannot resolve this issue, Ecology may deny DOE a permit for C-farm closure. By using an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on how to assess soil contamination, including NRC's role, DOE would be better positioned to avoid future cleanup delays. DOE has not developed a long-term plan for tank-farm closure, in part, because a plan is not required. However, leading practices in program management call for long-term planning. In addition, DOE faces technical challenges that may take years to address as noted by representatives from various entities or tribal governments. For example, an internal DOE document states there is a 95 percent probability DOE will run out of space in its double shell tanks—space needed to continue retrieval operations. Planning for and building new tanks requires years of work. By developing a long-term plan, DOE could better prepare to address technical challenges. The Hanford site in Washington State contains about 54 million gallons of nuclear waste, which is stored in 177 underground storage tanks. In fiscal years 1997 through 2019, DOE spent over $10 billion to maintain Hanford's tanks and retrieve waste from them. DOE expects to spend at least $69 billion more on activities to retrieve tank waste and close tanks, according to a January 2019 DOE report. Senate Report 116-48, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to review the status of tank closures at Hanford. GAO's report examines the status of DOE's efforts to retrieve tank waste, challenges DOE faces in its effort to close the C-farm, as well as DOE's approach for closing the remaining tank farms. GAO toured the site; reviewed DOE documents, laws, and regulations; and interviewed officials and representatives from local, regional, and national entities and tribal governments. Congress should consider clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, whether residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOE (1) use an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on a process for assessing soil contamination, including NRC's role and (2) develop a long-term plan for its tank waste cleanup mission at Hanford. DOE concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) responded to COVID-19 in multiple phases. The Bureau first suspended field operations in March 2020 for two successive 2-week periods to promote the safety of its workforce and the public. In April 2020, the Bureau extended this suspension to a total of 3 months for Non-response Follow-up (NRFU), the most labor-intensive decennial field operation that involves hundreds of thousands of enumerators going door-to-door to collect census data from households that have not yet responded to the census. At that time, the Department of Commerce also requested from Congress a 120-day extension to statutory deadlines providing census data for congressional apportionment and redistricting purposes, and the Bureau developed and implemented plans to deliver the population counts by those requested deadlines. The Bureau implemented NRFU in multiple waves between July 16 and August 9, 2020, to ensure that operational systems and procedures were ready for nationwide use. The Bureau considered COVID-19 case trends, the availability of personal protective equipment, and the availability of staff in deciding which areas to start NRFU first. On August 3, 2020, the Bureau announced that, as directed by the Secretary of Commerce, it would accelerate its operational timeframes to deliver population counts by the original statutory deadlines. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in September 2020 issued an injunction that reversed the Secretary's August 2020 directions for design changes and the Bureau's adherence to the statutory deadlines, but the Supreme Court ultimately stayed this injunction in October 2020 and allowed the Bureau to proceed with its August 2020 design changes. As a result, the Bureau shortened NRFU by over 2 weeks and reduced the time allotted for response processing after NRFU from 153 days to 77 days. GAO has previously noted that late design changes create increased risk for a quality census. The Bureau is examining ways to share quality indicators of the census in the near term and has a series of planned operational assessments, coverage measurement exercises, and data quality teams that are positioned to retrospectively study the effects of design changes made in the response to COVID-19 on census data quality. The Bureau is still in the process of updating its plans for these efforts to examine the range of operational modifications made in response to COVID-19, including the August 2020 and later changes. As part of the Bureau's assessments, it will be important to address a number of concerns GAO identified about how late changes to the census design could affect data quality. These concerns range from how the altered time frames have affected population counts during field data collection to what effects, if any, compressed and streamlined post-data collection processing of census data may have on the Bureau's ability to detect and fully address processing or other errors before releasing the apportionment and redistricting tabulations. Addressing these concerns as part of the overall 2020 assessment will help the Bureau ensure public confidence in the 2020 Census and inform future census planning efforts. As the Bureau was mailing out invitations to respond to the decennial census and was preparing for fieldwork to count nonresponding households, much of the nation began closing down to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic, the Bureau has made a series of changes to the design of the census. Understanding the chronology of events and the Bureau's decisions, along with the factors and information sources that it considered, can help to shed light on the implications and tradeoffs of the Bureau's response. This report, the first in a series of retrospective reviews on the 2020 Census, examines the key changes that the Bureau made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and how those changes affect the cost and quality of the census. GAO performed its work under the authority of the Comptroller General to conduct evaluations on the 2020 Census to assist Congress with its oversight responsibilities. GAO reviewed Bureau decision memos, interviewed Bureau officials, and consulted contemporaneous COVID-19 case data for context on the Bureau's COVID-19 response. GAO is recommending that the Bureau update and implement its assessments to address data quality concerns identified in this report, as well as any operational benefits. In its comments, the Department of Commerce agreed with GAO's findings and recommendation. The Bureau also provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202) 512-6806 or mihmj@gao.gov or Nick Marinos at 202-512-9342 or by email at marinosn@gao.gov.
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    For over a decade, Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK) have developed and implemented national approaches—including strategies, laws, and policies—to support family caregivers, according to experts GAO interviewed. Specifically, experts noted that these efforts could help caregivers maintain workforce attachment, supplement lost income, and save for retirement. As a result, their retirement security could improve. For example, experts said: Care leave allows employees to take time away from work for caregiving responsibilities. Australia's and Germany's policies allow for paid leave (10 days per year of work or instance of caregiving need, respectively), and all three countries allow for unpaid leave though the duration varies. Caregivers can receive income for time spent caregiving. Australia and the UK provide direct payments to those who qualify. Germany provides indirect payments, whereby the care recipient receives an allowance, which they can pass on to their caregiver. Other Countries' Policies to Support Caregivers Experts in all three countries cited some challenges with caregiver support policies. For example, paid leave is not available to all workers in Germany, such as those who work for small firms. In Australia and the UK, experts said eligibility requirements for direct payments (e.g., limits on hours worked or earnings) can make it difficult for someone to work outside their caregiving role. Experts in all three countries said caregivers may be unaware of available supports. For example, identifying caregivers is a challenge in Australia and the UK. As required under the RAISE Family Caregivers Act, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convened the Family Caregiving Advisory Council (FCAC)—a stakeholder group that is to jointly develop a national family caregiving strategy. As of July 2020, HHS and the FCAC reported limited information on other countries' approaches, and neither entity had concrete plans to collect more. In September 2020, HHS officials provided sources they recently reviewed on selected policies in other countries, and they further noted that HHS staff, FCAC members, and collaborating partners have subject-matter expertise and bring perspectives about other countries' efforts into their discussions. Family caregivers play a critical role in supporting the elderly population, which is growing at a rapid rate worldwide. However, those who provide eldercare may risk their own long-term financial security. Other countries have implemented policies to support caregivers. In recognition of challenges caregivers face in the United States, Congress directed HHS, in consultation with other federal entities, to develop a national family caregiving strategy. GAO was asked to provide information about other countries' efforts that could improve the retirement security of parental and spousal caregivers. This report examines (1) other countries' approaches to support family members who provide eldercare, (2) challenges of these approaches, and (3) the status of HHS' efforts to develop a national family caregiving strategy. GAO conducted case studies of three countries—Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom—selected based on factors including rates of informal care (i.e., help provided to older family members or friends) and the types of policies they have that could improve caregivers' retirement security. GAO interviewed government officials and experts and reviewed relevant federal laws, research, and documents. GAO's draft report recommended that HHS collect additional information about other countries' experiences. In response, in September 2020, HHS provided an update on its efforts to do so. As a result, GAO removed the recommendation and modified the report accordingly. For more information, contact Tranchau (Kris) T. Nguyen at or nguyentt@gao.gov.
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    The procedures that GAO agreed to perform on fiscal year 2020 net excise tax distributions to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF) and the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and the results of those procedures are described in the enclosures to this report. The sufficiency of these procedures is solely the responsibility of the Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG). The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is responsible for certifying quarterly net excise tax collections to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF. The Department of the Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis (OTA) is responsible for developing reasonable estimates of net excise tax collections to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF. These IRS certifications and OTA estimates are the basis of the net excise tax distributions to the AATF and the HTF. GAO was not engaged to perform, and did not perform, an examination or review. Accordingly, GAO does not express such an opinion or conclusion. The purpose of this report is solely to describe agreed-upon procedures related to information representing the basis of amounts distributed from the general fund to the AATF and the HTF during fiscal year 2020, and the report is not suitable for any other purpose. IRS agreed with the findings related to the procedures performed concerning excise tax distributions to the AATF and the HTF during the fiscal year 2020. OTA stated that it had no comments on the report. GAO performed agreed-upon procedures solely to assist the DOT OIG in ascertaining whether the net excise tax revenue distributed to the AATF and the HTF for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2020, is supported by information from the Department of the Treasury, including IRS's excise tax receipt certifications and OTA's estimates. DOT OIG is responsible for the sufficiency of these agreed-upon procedures to meet its objectives, and GAO makes no representation in that respect. The procedures that GAO agreed to perform were related to information representing the basis of amounts distributed from the General Fund to the AATF and the HTF during fiscal year 2020, including (1) IRS's quarterly AATF and HTF excise tax certifications prepared during fiscal year 2020 and (2) OTA's estimates of excise tax amounts to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF for the third and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2020. For more information, contact Cheryl E. Clark at (202) 512-3406 or clarkce@gao.gov.
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  • Department of Energy Contracting: Improvements Needed to Ensure DOE Assesses Its Full Range of Contracting Fraud Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO identified nine categories of contracting fraud schemes that occurred at the Department of Energy (DOE), including billing schemes, conflicts of interest, and payroll schemes. For example, a subcontractor employee at a site created fraudulent invoices for goods never received, resulting in a loss of over $6 million. In another scheme, a contractor engaged in years of widespread time card fraud, submitting inflated claims for compensation. The contractor agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle the case. DOE reported that it identified nearly $15 million in improper payments due to confirmed fraud in fiscal year 2019. However, due to the difficulty in detecting fraud, agencies—including DOE—incur financial losses related to fraud that are never identified or are settled without admission to fraud and are not counted as such. Fraud can also have nonfinancial impacts, such as fraudsters obtaining a competitive advantage and preventing legitimate businesses from obtaining contracts. DOE has taken some steps and is planning others to demonstrate a commitment to combat fraud and assess its contracting fraud risks, consistent with the leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. However, GAO found that DOE has not assessed the full range of contracting fraud risks it faces. Specifically, GAO found DOE's methods for gathering information about its fraud risks captures selected fraud risks—rather than all fraud risks—facing DOE programs. As shown in the figure, DOE's risk profiles for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 did not capture four of nine fraud schemes that occurred at DOE. For example, one entity did not include any fraud risks in its risk profiles, yet GAO identified six types of fraud schemes that occurred at the entity's site. DOE plans to expand its risk assessment process, but officials expect the new process will continue to rely on a methodology that gathers information on selected fraud risks. The Fraud Risk Framework states that entities identify specific tools, methods, and sources for gathering information about fraud risks. Without expanding its methodology to capture, assess, and document all fraud risks facing its programs, DOE risks remaining vulnerable to these types of fraud. Fraud Risks Identified in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 Risk Profiles Compared with Types of Fraud Schemes That Have Occurred at DOE DOE is planning to develop an antifraud strategy in fiscal year 2022 and has taken some steps to evaluate and adapt to fraud risks, consistent with leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. Part of DOE's effort to manage fraud risks includes adapting controls to address emerging fraud risks. Additionally, DOE is planning to expand its use of data analytics to detect contracting fraud, beginning in fiscal year 2022. DOE relies primarily on contractors to carry out its missions at its laboratories and other facilities, spending approximately 80 percent of its total obligations on contracts. GAO and DOE's Inspector General have reported on incidents of fraud by DOE contractors and identified multiple contracting fraud risks. GAO was asked to examine DOE's processes to manage contracting fraud risks. This report examines, for DOE, (1) types of contracting fraud schemes and their financial and nonfinancial impacts, (2) steps taken to commit to combating contracting fraud risks and the extent to which these risks have been assessed, and (3) steps taken to design and implement an antifraud strategy and to evaluate and adapt its approach. GAO reviewed relevant laws and guidance; reviewed agency media releases, Agency Financial Reports, and DOE Inspector General reports to Congress from 2013 through 2019; and reviewed documents and interviewed officials from 42 DOE field and site offices, contractors, and subcontractors, representing a range of sites and programs. GAO is making two recommendations, including for DOE to expand its fraud risk assessment methodology to ensure all fraud risks facing DOE programs are fully assessed and documented in accordance with leading practices. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Shea at (202) 512-6722 shear@gao.gov or Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841, bawdena@gao.gov.
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  • The United States Has Repatriated 27 Americans from Syria and Iraq Including Ten Charged with Terrorism-Related Offenses for Their Support to ISIS
    In Crime News
    The International [Read More…]