Secretary Blinken’s Call with Honduran Foreign Minister Rosales

Office of the Spokesperson

The following is attributable to Spokesperson Ned Price:

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Honduran Foreign Minister Lisandro Rosales today. Secretary Blinken emphasized our commitment to working with Honduras to address the structural problems that lead people to migrate – corruption and lack of respect for human rights, lack of economic opportunity, and insecurity. They discussed continued U.S. government support for Honduras as it responds to the COVID-19 pandemic and recovers from the devastation caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Secretary Blinken noted the strong bonds between the people of our two countries and reaffirmed our commitment to the bilateral relationship.

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    What GAO Found In April 2020, the Small Business Administration (SBA) quickly implemented the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and expedited the processing of Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and a new EIDL advance program. These important programs have helped businesses survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to move quickly on these programs, SBA initially put limited internal controls in place, leaving both susceptible to program integrity issues, improper payments, and fraud. Because of concerns about program integrity, GAO added PPP and the EIDL program onto its High-Risk List in March 2021. SBA has begun to take steps to address these initial deficiencies: PPP oversight. Because ongoing oversight is crucial, GAO recommended in June 2020 that SBA develop plans to respond to PPP risks to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. Since then, SBA has developed a loan review process and added up-front verifications before it approves new loans. Improper payments for PPP. GAO recommended in November 2020 that SBA expeditiously estimate improper payments for PPP and report estimates and error rates. SBA has now developed a plan for the testing needed to estimate improper payments. Analyzing EIDL data. Based on evidence of widespread potential fraud for EIDL, GAO recommended in January 2021 that SBA conduct portfolio-level analysis to detect potentially ineligible applications. SBA has not announced plans to implement this recommendation. EIDL oversight. GAO recommended in March 2021 that SBA implement a comprehensive oversight plan for EIDL to ensure program integrity. SBA agreed to implement such a plan. Assessment of fraud risks. SBA has not conducted a formal fraud risk assessment for PPP or the EIDL program. GAO made four recommendations in March 2021, including that SBA conduct a formal assessment and develop a strategy to manage fraud risks for each program. SBA said it would work to complete fraud risk assessments for PPP and EIDL and continually monitor fraud risks. Financial statement audit. In December 2020, SBA's independent financial statement auditor issued a disclaimer of opinion on SBA's fiscal year 2020 consolidated financial statements because SBA could not provide adequate documentation to support a significant number of transactions and account balances related to PPP and EIDL. GAO continues to review information SBA recently provided, including data on PPP loan forgiveness and details on the PPP and EIDL loan review processes. In addition, GAO has obtained additional information from a survey of PPP participating lenders, interviews with SBA's PPP contractors, and written responses to questions provided by SBA's EIDL contractor and subcontractors. Why GAO Did This Study SBA has made or guaranteed about 18.7 million loans and grants through PPP and the EIDL program, providing about $968 billion to help small businesses adversely affected by COVID-19. PPP provides potentially forgivable loans to small businesses, and EIDL provides low-interest loans of up to $2 million for operating and other expenses, as well as advances (grants). This testimony discusses the lack of controls in PPP and the EIDL program and SBA's efforts to improve its oversight of these programs. It is based largely on GAO's June 2020–March 2021 reports on the federal response, including by SBA, to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 (GAO-20-625, GAO-20-701, GAO-21-191, GAO-21-265, GAO -21-387). For those reports, GAO reviewed SBA documentation and SBA Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports; analyzed SBA data; and interviewed officials from SBA, the SBA OIG, and the Department of the Treasury.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Contact Tracing Apps
    In U.S GAO News
    Why This Matters Contact tracing can help reduce transmission rates for infectious diseases like COVID-19 by identifying and notifying people who may have been exposed. Contact tracing apps, notably those using proximity tracing, could expedite such efforts. However, there are challenges, including accuracy, adoption rates, and privacy concerns. The Technology What is it? Contact tracing is a process in which public health officials attempt to limit disease transmission by identifying infected individuals, notifying their "contacts"—all the people they may have transmitted the disease to—and asking infected individuals and their contacts to quarantine, if appropriate (see fig. 1). For a highly contagious respiratory disease such as COVID-19, a contact could be anyone who has been nearby. Proximity tracing applications (apps) can expedite contact tracing, using smartphones to rapidly identify and notify contacts. Figure 1. A simplified depiction of disease transmission. Through contact tracing, an infected individual’s contacts are notified and may be asked to quarantine. (In reality, some contacts may not become infected, and some of those infected may not show symptoms.) How does it work? In traditional contact tracing, public health officials begin by identifying an infected individual. They then interview the individual to identify recent contacts, ask the individual and their contacts to take containment measures, if appropriate (e.g., a 14-day quarantine for COVID-19), and coordinate any needed care and testing. Proximity tracing apps may accelerate the process by replacing the time-consuming interviews needed to identify contacts. Apps may also identify more contacts than interviews, which rely on interviewees' recall and on their being acquainted with their contacts. Public health authorities provide the apps, often using systems developed by companies or research groups. Users voluntarily download the app for their country or region and opt in to contact tracing. In the U.S., state or local public health authorities would likely implement proximity tracing apps. Proximity tracing apps detect contacts using Bluetooth, GPS, or a combination of both. Bluetooth-based apps rely on anonymous codes shared between smartphones during close encounters. These codes contain no information about location or user identity, helping safeguard privacy. The apps allow public health authorities to set a minimum time and distance threshold for someone to count as a contact. Contact tracing can be centralized or decentralized. With a centralized approach, contacts identified by the app are often saved to a government server, and an official notifies contacts of possible exposure. For a decentralized approach, contact data are typically stored on the user's device at first. When a user voluntarily reports infection, the user's codes are uploaded to a database that other app users' phones search. Users who have encountered the infected person then receive notifications through the app (see fig. 2). Figure 2. Bluetooth-based proximity tracing apps exchange information, notify contacts exposed to an infected person, and provide follow-up information. How mature is it? Traditional contact tracing is well established and has been an effective infectious disease response strategy for decades. Proximity tracing apps are relatively new and not as well established. Their contact identifications could become more accurate as developers improve app technology, for example by improving Bluetooth signal interpretation or using information from other phone sensors. Opportunities Reach more people. For accurate COVID-19 contact tracing using traditional methods, public health experts have estimated that the U.S. would require hundreds of thousands of trained contact tracers because of the large number of infections. Proximity tracing apps can expedite and automate identification and notification of the contacts, reducing this need. Faster response. Proximity tracing apps could slow the spread of disease more effectively because they can identify and notify contacts as soon as a user reports they are infected. More complete identification of contacts. Proximity tracing apps, unlike traditional contact tracing, do not require users to recall or be acquainted with people they have recently encountered. Challenges Technology. Technological limitations may lead to missed contacts or false identification of contacts. For example, GPS-based apps may not identify precise locations, and Bluetooth apps may ignore barriers preventing exposure, such as walls or protective equipment. In addition, apps may overlook exposure if two people were not in close enough proximity long enough for it to count as a contact. Adoption. Lower adoption rates make the apps less effective. In the U.S., some states may choose not to use proximity tracing apps. In addition, the public may hesitate to opt in because of concerns about privacy and uncertainty as to how the data may be used. Recent scams using fake contact tracing to steal information may also erode trust in the apps. Interoperability. Divergent app designs may lead to the inability to exchange data between apps, states, and countries, which could be a problem as travel restrictions are relaxed. Access. Proximity tracing apps require regular access to smartphones and knowledge about how to install and use apps. Some vulnerable populations, including seniors, are less likely to own smartphones and use apps, possibly affecting adoption. Policy Context and Questions Although proximity tracing apps are relatively new, they have the potential to help slow disease transmission. But policymakers will need to consider how great the benefits are likely to be, given the challenges. If policymakers decide to use proximity tracing apps, they will need to integrate them into the larger public health response and consider the following questions, among others: What steps can policymakers take to build public trust and encourage communities to support and use proximity tracing apps, and mitigate lack of adoption by some populations? What legal, procedural, privacy, security, and technical safeguards could protect data collected through proximity tracing apps? What can policymakers do to improve coordination of contact tracing efforts across local, state, and international jurisdictions? What can policymakers do to expedite testing and communication of test results to maximize the benefits of proximity tracing apps? What can policymakers do to ensure that contact identification is accurate and that its criteria are based on scientific evidence? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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  • Military Spouse Employment: DOD Should Continue Assessing State Licensing Practices and Increase Awareness of Resources
    In U.S GAO News
    According to estimates from Department of Defense (DOD) survey data, roughly one-quarter of military spouses who were in the workforce and in career fields that required credentials (state licenses or certifications) were unemployed in 2017. In that same year, about one-quarter of spouses who were employed in credentialed career fields were working outside their area of expertise, and about one in seven were working part-time due to a lack of full-time opportunities—two potential indicators of underemployment. Employment outcomes for military spouses may also vary due to other factors, including their partner's rank and frequent moves, according to DOD survey data and GAO's literature review. In February 2020, the Defense State Liaison Office, which works on key issues affecting military families, assessed states' use of best practices that help military spouses transfer occupational licenses. For example, the Liaison Office found that 34 states could increase their use of interstate compacts, which allow spouses in certain career fields, such as nursing, to work in multiple states without relicensing (see figure). However, the Liaison Office does not plan to continue these assessments, or assess whether states' efforts are improving spouses' experiences with transferring licenses. As a result, DOD may not have up-to-date information on states' actions that help spouses transfer their licenses and maintain employment. Assessment by the Defense State Liaison Office of Number of States Using Interstate Compacts to Improve Military Spouse Employment DOD and the military services use a range of virtual and in-person outreach to promote awareness of employment resources among military spouses. For example, officials GAO interviewed at installations said they promoted resources through social media and at orientation briefings. Nonetheless, GAO found that inconsistent information sharing across DOD and with external stakeholders who help spouses with employment hindered the effectiveness of outreach. For instance, officials from two services said they do not have methods to regularly exchange outreach best practices or challenges, while officials from another service said they have quarterly staff calls to share lessons learned. Without strategies for sharing information among internal and external stakeholders, DOD may miss opportunities to increase spouses' awareness of available resources, and improve their employment opportunities. There were over 605,000 spouses of active duty servicemembers in the U.S. military as of 2018. These spouses may face conditions associated with the military lifestyle that make it challenging to start or maintain a career, including frequent moves and difficulties transferring occupational licenses. House Armed Services Committee Report 116-120 accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review several matters related to military spouse employment. This report examines (1) selected employment outcomes for military spouses, (2) DOD's efforts to evaluate states' licensing policies for spouses, and (3) DOD's outreach efforts to promote awareness of employment resources. GAO reviewed DOD documentation and 2017 survey data (most recent available), relevant literature, and federal laws; interviewed DOD and military services officials and relevant stakeholders; and spoke with staff at six military installations selected based on the numbers of servicemembers, among other factors. GAO is making two recommendations to DOD to continue assessing and reporting on states' efforts to help military spouses transfer occupational licenses, and to establish information sharing strategies on outreach to military spouses about employment resources. DOD concurred with both recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or curdae@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Urgent Actions Needed to Better Ensure an Effective Federal Response
    In U.S GAO News
    The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, stability, and security. According to federal data, the U.S. had an average of 116,000 new COVID-19 cases per day from November 1 through November 12, 2020. Between January 2020 and October 2020, at least 237,000 more deaths occurred from all causes, including COVID-19, than would normally be expected, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, while the economy has improved since July 2020, many people remain unemployed, including both those temporarily laid off and those who have permanently lost their job (see figure). Also, more households have become seriously delinquent on mortgage payments during the pandemic. In addition, GAO’s review of academic studies suggests the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity. Number of Unemployed Workers Permanently Losing Jobs and on Temporary Layoff, January 2019 through October 2020 In response to the pandemic and its effects, Congress and the administration have taken a series of actions to protect the health and well-being of Americans. However, as the end of 2020 approaches, urgent actions are needed to help ensure an effective federal response on a range of public health and economic issues. Medical Supplies While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have made numerous efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain, shortages of certain supplies persist. In September 2020, GAO reported that ongoing constraints with the availability of certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. In October 2020, GAO surveyed public health and emergency management officials from all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories (hereafter states) and found the following: Testing supplies. Most states reported no shortages of swabs or transport media, but about one-third to one-half reported shortages in other types of testing supplies (see figure). State-Reported Testing Supply Shortages, as of October 2020   GAO surveyed officials in the 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories and received responses from 47 of the 56 locations, representing 41 states; Washington, D.C.; and all five territories. Not all states responded to every question. PPE. The majority of states that responded were mainly able to fulfill requests for supplies from organizations and entities within their states. However, availability constraints continue with certain PPE, such as nitrile gloves. Supplies for future vaccine needs. About one-third of states that responded stated that they were “greatly” or “completely” concerned about having sufficient vaccine-related supplies to administer COVID-19 vaccines. An additional 21 states indicated that they were moderately concerned. In September 2020, GAO recommended that HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic; immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain; and devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security disagreed with these recommendations, noting, among other things, the work that they had done to manage the medical supply chain and increase supply availability. In November 2020, HHS repeated its disagreement with GAO’s recommendations and noted its efforts to meet the needs of states. In light of the surge in COVID-19 cases, along with reported shortages, including GAO’s nationwide survey findings, GAO underscores the critical imperative for HHS and FEMA to implement GAO’s September 2020 recommendations. Vaccines and Therapeutics In a recent GAO report (GAO-21-207), GAO found that there has been significant federal investment to accelerate vaccine and therapeutic development, such as through Operation Warp Speed, a partnership between the Department of Defense and HHS that aims to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Separately, Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA), which allow for the emergency use of medical products without Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval or licensure provided certain statutory criteria are met, have also been used for therapeutics. As of November 9, 2020, FDA had made four therapeutics available to treat COVID-19 through EUAs. In that report, GAO recommended that FDA identify waysto uniformly discloseinformation from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines. By doing so, FDA could help improve the transparency of, and ensure public trust in, its EUA decisions. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said it shared GAO’s goal of transparency. COVID-19 Testing Guidance HHS and its component agencies have taken several key actions to document a federal COVID-19 testing strategy and provide testing-related agency guidance. However, this guidance has not always been transparent, raising the risk of confusion and eroding trust in government. In particular, while it is expected that guidance will change as new information about the novel virus evolves, frequent changes to general CDC testing guidelines have not always been communicated with a scientific explanation. GAO recommends that HHS ensure that CDC clearly discloses the scientific rationale for any change to testing guidelines at the time the changeis made. HHS concurred with this recommendation. Types of COVID-19 Testing Approaches Nursing Home Care In September 2020, the Coronavirus Commission on Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes (established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in June 2020) made 27 recommendations to CMS on topics such as testing, PPE, and visitation. CMS released a response to the commission that broadly outlined the actions it has taken to date, but it has not fully addressed the commission’s recommendations or provided an implementation plan to track and report progress toward implementing them. While CMS is not obligated to implement all of the commission’s recommendations, the agency has not indicated any areas where it does not plan to take action. GAO recommends that CMS quickly develop a plan that further details how it intends to respond to and implement, as appropriate, the commission’s recommendations. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation and said it would refer to and act upon the commission’s recommendations, as appropriate. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) partners with state governments to provide nursing home care to more than 20,000 veterans in over 150 state veterans homes. In March 2020, VA instructed its contractor to stop in-person inspections due to concerns about COVID-19. As of September 2020, these inspections had not resumed, leaving veterans at risk of receiving poor quality care. Additionally, VA does not collect timely data on the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths occurring at each state veterans home, hindering its ability to monitor and take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in these homes. GAO recommends that VA (1) develop a plan to resume inspections of state veterans homes, which may include using in-person, a mix of virtual and in-person, or fully virtual inspections, and (2) collect timely data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in each state veterans home. VA concurred with both recommendations. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act included economic impact payments (EIP) for eligible individuals to address financial stress due to the pandemic. As of September 30, 2020, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had disbursed over 165.8 million payments to individuals, totaling $274.7 billion. According to IRS data, more than 26 million non-filers—individuals who do not normally file a tax return and may be hard to reach—received a payment (see figure). However, everyone that was supposed to receive a payment was not reached. Starting in September 2020, IRS sent notices to nearly 9 million individuals who had not yet received an EIP. Number of Filers and Non-Filers Issued an Economic Impact Payment, as of September 30, 2020 Treasury and IRS officials did not plan to track and analyze the outcomes of their EIP notice mailing effort until 2021. The lack of timely analysis deprives Treasury and IRS of data they could use to assess the effectiveness of their notice strategy and redirect resources as needed to other outreach and communication efforts. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, should begin tracking and publicly reporting the number of individuals who were mailed an EIP notification letter and filed for and received an EIP, and use that information to inform ongoing outreach and communications efforts. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. Unemployment Insurance The CARES Act created three federally funded temporary programs for unemployment insurance (UI) that expanded benefit eligibility and enhanced benefits. In its weekly news releases, the Department of Labor (DOL) publishes the number of weeks of unemployment benefits claimed by individuals in each state during the period and reports the total count as the number of people claiming benefits nationwide. DOL officials told GAO that they have traditionally used this number as a proxy for the number of individuals claiming benefits because they were closely related. However, the number of claims has not been an accurate estimate of the number of individuals claiming benefits during the pandemic because of backlogs in processing a historic volume of claims, among other data issues. Without an accurate accounting of the number of individuals who are relying on these benefits in as close to real time as possible, policymakers may be challenged to respond to the crisis at hand. GAO recommends that DOL (1) revise its weekly news releases to clarify that in the current unemployment environment, the numbers it reports for weeks of unemployment claimed do not accurately estimate the number of unique individuals claiming benefits, and (2) pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits, such as by collecting these already available data from states. DOL agreed with the recommendation to revise its weekly news releases, and partially agreed with the recommendation to pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the pandemic, the CARES Act included tax measures to help businesses receive cash refunds or other reductions to tax obligations. Some taxpayers need to file an amended income tax return to take advantage of these provisions; at the same time, IRS faces an increase in mail and paper processing delays due to the pandemic, which may delay the timely processing of this paperwork and issuance of these refunds. GAO recommends that IRS update its form instructions to include information on its electronic filing capability for tax year 2019. IRS agreed with this recommendation. Program Integrity Although the extent and significance of improper payments associated with COVID-19 relief funds have not yet been determined, the impact of these improper payments, including those that are the result of fraud, could be substantial. For example, numerous individuals are facing federal charges related to attempting to defraud the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), UI program, or other federal programs, and many more investigations are underway. To address the risk of improper payments due to fraud and other causes, GAO previously recommended the following: The Small Business Administration (SBA) should develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in the PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with Treasury, should issue timely guidance for auditing new and existing COVID-19-related programs, including Coronavirus Relief Fund payments, as soon as possible. Audits of entities that receive federal funds are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds.Also, Congress should amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to prevent payments to ineligible individuals. GAO maintains that implementing these recommendations fully is critically important in order to protect federal funds from improper payments resulting from fraud and other risks. In this report, GAO also identifies new concerns about the timely reporting of improper payments for COVID-19 programs. The COVID-19 relief laws appropriated over a trillion dollars that may be spent through newly established programs to fund response and recovery efforts, such as SBA’s PPP. However, unlike the supplemental appropriations acts that provided for disaster relief related to the 2017 hurricanes and California wildfires, the COVID-19 relief laws did not require agencies to deem programs receiving these relief funds that expend more than a threshold amount as "susceptible to significant improper payments." In addition, based on OMB guidance, improper payment estimates associated with new COVID-19 programs established in March 2020 may not be reported until November 2022, in some instances. GAO is making two recommendations: OMB should develop and issueguidance directingagencies to include COVID-19 relief funding with associated key risks, such as changes to existing program eligibility rules, as part of their improper payment estimation methodologies, especially for existing programs that received COVID-19 relief funding. SBA should expeditiously estimate improper payments and report estimates and error rates for PPP due to concerns about the possibility that improper payments, including those resulting from fraudulent activity, could be widespread. GAO is also suggesting that Congress consider, in any future legislation appropriating COVID-19 relief funds, designating all executive agency programs and activities making more than $100 million in payments from COVID-19 relief funds as “susceptible to significant improper payments.” Aviation Assistance and Preparedness GAO identified concerns about efforts to monitor CARES Act financial assistance to the aviation sector. Treasury’s Payroll Support Program (PSP) provides $32 billion in payroll support payments and loans to help the aviation industry retain its employees. While recipients have begun submitting required compliance reports, Treasury has not yet finalized a monitoring system to identify and respond to the risk of noncompliance with PSP agreement terms, potentially hindering its ability to detect program misuse in a timely manner. GAO is recommending that Treasury finish developing and implement acompliance monitoringplan that identifies and responds to risks in the PSP. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation, but committed to reviewing additional measures that may further enhance its compliance monitoring and ensure that PSP funds are used as intended. In June 2020, GAO suggested that Congress take legislative action to require the Secretary of Transportation to work with relevant agencies, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security, and other stakeholders, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to limit the spread of communicable diseasethreats and minimize traveland trade impacts. GAO originally made this recommendation to the Department of Transportation in December 2015. GAO urges Congress to take swift action to require such a plan, without which the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to ongoing and future communicable disease events. As of November 12, 2020, the U.S. had over 10.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 224,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of November 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of September 30, 2020, of the $2.6 trillion appropriated by these acts, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.8 trillion and expended $1.6 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials. GAO also sent a survey to public health and emergency management officials in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the five U.S. territories regarding medical supplies. GAO is making 11 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. GAO is also raising one matter for congressional consideration. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202)512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • Federalism: Opportunities Exist to Improve Coordination and Consultation with State and Local Governments
    In U.S GAO News
    Federal agencies' intergovernmental affairs activities advance agency objectives that require coordination with state and local governments. Most of the 24 Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act agencies GAO surveyed reported undertaking similar information-sharing and coordination activities, such as serving as liaisons, conducting outreach, and hosting and attending events. The agencies GAO surveyed also reported taking varied approaches to structuring their intergovernmental affairs operations to conduct these activities. Of the 20 agencies with agency-wide intergovernmental affairs offices, half focused on intergovernmental affairs as their sole function while the other half included multiple functions, such as congressional or legislative affairs. How Agencies Organized Their Intergovernmental Affairs Operations Most agencies also reported that intergovernmental affairs activities and responsibilities were dispersed across their agencies. Regional and program offices perform intergovernmental affairs functions at some agencies, while others have an agency-wide office for them. Responsibilities for consulting with state and local governments under Executive Order (E.O.) 13132 also varied. The order requires that each federal agency designate an official to implement the order. Fourteen agencies reported having such an official; 10 did not report having one. Representatives from state and local associations GAO interviewed reported interacting with federal agency intergovernmental affairs offices for outreach and information-sharing purposes. They also cited coordination and consultation challenges, such as difficulty identifying intergovernmental affairs contacts, limited federal agency knowledge of state and local government, and inconsistent consultation on proposed regulations. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has primary responsibility for implementing E.O. 13132 and related implementation guidance, including a requirement for the designation of a federalism official. However, OMB could not identify any oversight steps it had taken to ensure federal agencies' designation of a federalism official consistent with its guidance for implementation of the executive order. Taking steps to ensure federal agencies' designation of a federalism official could help ensure that agencies have an accountable process in place for appropriately consulting with state and local governments. Federal programs fulfilling national goals in education, health care, transportation infrastructure, and homeland security, among other issues, are implemented through a complex partnership between federal, state, and local governments. E.O. 13132, Federalism, outlines principles and criteria to guide the formulation and implementation of policies and the appropriate division of responsibilities between levels of government. GAO was asked to review intergovernmental affairs activities at executive branch agencies. This report (1) identifies intergovernmental affairs offices' key responsibilities and activities at selected federal agencies and how these offices are organized, and (2) assesses state and local government officials' interaction with intergovernmental affairs offices, including their reported strengths and challenges. GAO examined relevant policies and executive orders and surveyed officials from the 24 CFO Act agencies. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizable sample of individuals from 10 associations representing state and local government officials. GAO is recommending that OMB ensure that federal agencies implement its guidance on agency adherence to E.O. 13132 requirements, particularly related to designating a federalism official. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or sagerm@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Reaches Settlement with Toledo Public Schools to Resolve Complaints of Race and Disability Discrimination in Student Discipline
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio today announced a settlement agreement with the Toledo Public Schools to address and prevent discriminatory discipline of students based on race or disability and to require appropriate language services for limited English proficient (LEP) parents on matters essential to their children’s education.  
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  • Texas Woman Charged with Fraudulently Obtaining Nearly $2 Million in COVID Relief Funds
    In Crime News
    A Texas woman has been taken into custody on allegations she fraudulently obtained more than $1.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick of the Southern District of Texas.
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    A federal grand jury in the Western District of Kentucky returned an indictment charging two Kentucky real estate professionals with conspiring to rig bids at an estate auction for farmland and timber rights.
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  • Federal Oil and Gas Revenue: Actions Needed to Improve BLM’s Royalty Relief Policy
    In U.S GAO News
    In reaction to falling domestic oil prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) developed a temporary policy in spring 2020 for oil and gas royalty relief. The policy aimed to prevent oil and gas wells from being shut down in way that could lead to permanent losses of recoverable oil and gas. During March through June 2020, BLM gave companies the opportunity to apply for a reduction in the royalty rates for certain oil and gas leases on federal lands. BLM approved reductions from 12.5 percent of total revenue on oil and gas sold from those leases to an average of less than 1 percent for a period of 60 days. However, BLM did not establish in advance that royalty relief was needed to keep applicants' wells operating, according to BLM officials. BLM also did not assess the extent to which the temporary policy kept oil and gas companies from shutting down their wells or the amount of royalty revenues forgone by the federal government. By evaluating the extent to which the policy met BLM's objective of preventing unrecoverable loss of oil and gas resources–and likely costs, such as forgone revenues—BLM could better inform its decisions about granting royalty relief that provides a fair return to the government, should the agency decide to consider such relief in the future. BLM officials told GAO that BLM state offices implementing the temporary policy for royalty relief made inconsistent decisions about approving applications for relief because the temporary policy did not supply sufficient detail to facilitate uniform decision-making. The officials added that their state offices did not have recent experience in processing applications for oil and gas royalty relief. Several of the officials had never received or processed royalty relief applications. In addition, GAO found that ongoing guidance for processing royalty relief decisions—within BLM's Fees, Rentals and Royalties Handbook , last revised in 1995—also does not contain sufficient instructions for approving royalty relief. For example, the handbook does not address whether to approve applications in cases where the lease would continue to be uneconomic, even after royalty relief. As a result, some companies that applied for royalty relief were treated differently, depending on how BLM officials in their state interpreted the policy and guidance. In particular, officials from two state offices told GAO they denied royalty relief to applicants because the applicants could not prove that royalty relief would enable their leases to operate profitably. However, two other state offices approved royalty relief in such cases. The fifth state office denied both of the applications it received for other reasons. BLM's existing royalty relief guidance did not address this issue, and BLM's temporary policy did not supply sufficient detail to facilitate uniform decision-making in these situations. BLM's directives manual states that BLM should provide BLM employees with authoritative instructions and information to implement BLM programs and support activities. Until BLM updates the royalty relief guidance, BLM cannot ensure that future relief decisions will be made efficiently and equitably across the states and provide a fair return to the federal government. BLM manages the federal government's onshore oil and gas program with the goals of facilitating safe and responsible energy development while providing a fair return for the American taxpayer. In April 2020, oil and gas producers faced financial challenges from a drop in demand for oil during the COVID-19 pandemic. If oil and gas prices decline, it places financial stress on oil and gas companies, thereby increasing bankruptcies and the risk of wells being shut down. BLM developed a temporary policy to provide oil and gas companies relief from royalties that they owe to the federal government when they sell oil and gas produced on federal lands. This testimony discusses (1) BLM's development of the temporary policy for royalty relief and what is known about the policy's effects, and (2) BLM's implementation of this policy across relevant states. To do this work, GAO reviewed BLM documents; analyzed royalty data; and interviewed BLM officials from headquarters and the five BLM state offices with jurisdiction over states that account for 94 percent of royalties from oil and gas production on federal lands. GAO is making two recommendations. BLM should (1) evaluate the effects of its temporary royalty relief policy and use the results to inform its ongoing royalty relief program, and (2) update its guidance to provide consistent policies for royalty relief.  For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.
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  • University Researcher Pleads Guilty to Lying on Grant Applications to Develop Scientific Expertise for China
    In Crime News
    A rheumatology professor and researcher with strong ties to China pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal authorities as part of an immunology research fraud scheme. Song Guo Zheng, 58, of Hilliard, appeared in federal court today, at which time his guilty plea was accepted by Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley.
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    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that the Madoff Victim Fund (MVF) began its sixth distribution of approximately $488 million in funds forfeited to the U.S. Government in connection with the Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (BLMIS) fraud scheme, bringing the total distributed to almost $3.2 billion to nearly 37,000 victims worldwide.
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    A federal grand jury has charged a self-identified “incel” with attempting to conduct a mass shooting of women and with illegally possessing a machine gun.
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  • Compounding Pharmacy Mogul Sentenced for Multimillion-Dollar Health Care Fraud Scheme
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    A Mississippi businessman was sentenced today for his role in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud TRICARE, the health care benefit program serving U.S. military, veterans, and their respective family members, as well as private health care benefit programs.
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    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice, together with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), announced a $20 million settlement resolving alleged violations of the FTC Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), including violations of the Red Flags Rule. The settlement includes $15 million in civil penalties, which represents the largest civil penalty ever paid to resolve FCRA violations under the FTC Act.
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  • Indiana Man Charged with Hate Crime for Making Racially-Motivated Threats Towards Black Neighbor, and With Unlawful Possession of Firearms
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced today that Shepherd Hoehn, 50, has been charged by criminal complaint in federal district court with one count of violating 42 U.S.C. § 3631 for making threats to intimidate and interfere with his African-American neighbor because of the neighbor’s race and because of his use and enjoyment of his property, as well as two counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) for unlawfully possessing firearms.
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