Secretary Pompeo’s Meeting with Slovenian Foreign Minister Logar

Office of the Spokesperson

The following is attributable to Principal Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown:

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo met with Slovenian Foreign Minister Anže Logar today in Washington, D.C.  Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Logar discussed the importance of energy security and how civil nuclear cooperation can strengthen the strategic bilateral relationship.  Both leaders noted the anticipated  signature of the U.S.-Slovenia Nuclear Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding scheduled for December 8.  They also welcomed establishment of a U.S.-Slovenian Strategic Dialogue to further strengthen our foreign and security policy cooperation, advance economic prosperity for our two nations, and enhance our longstanding people-to-people ties.  Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Logar agreed on the need for coordinated action to defend our shared values and interests from threats posed by malign actors.  Secretary Pompeo also congratulated Slovenia for officially declaring Hizballah in its entirety a terrorist organization.

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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. 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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. 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    GAO reviewed 11 selected committees covered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) that serve the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury. GAO found that these committees met many, but not all, selected transparency requirements established by FACA, General Services Administration (GSA) FACA regulations, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). FACA committees GAO reviewed published timely notices for 70 of 76 meetings and solicited public comments for all open meetings held by the committees. However, four of the 11 committees did not follow one or more selected requirements to renew charters, decide on proposed recommendations during open meetings, or compile minutes. Five FACA committees GAO reviewed did not always follow requirements in OMB Circular A-130 for federal agencies to make public documents accessible online. GSA encourages agencies to post committee documents online consistent with OMB requirements. However, according to GSA's Office of the General Counsel, GSA's authority under FACA is not broad enough to require agencies to fulfill the OMB requirements. Eight of the nine selected FACA committees in our original sample that make recommendations to agencies attempt to track the agencies' responses to and implementation status of recommendations. However, many committees do not make this information fully available to the public online. Improved public reporting could enhance congressional and public visibility into the status of agencies' responses to committee recommendations. Selected Requirements for Advisory Committees Covered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) The selected agencies and FACA committees reported that they implemented a range of practices to help ensure agency officials do not exert inappropriate influence on committees' decisions. These practices include limiting committee members' interactions with agency officials outside committee meetings. GAO also found that about 29 percent of the 11 selected committees' cost data elements in GSA's FACA database for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 were inconsistent with corresponding cost data from selected agency and committee records and systems. In the absence of reliable cost data, Congress is unable to fully rely on these data to inform decisions about funding FACA committees. FACA requires federal agencies to ensure that federal advisory committees make decisions that are independent and transparent. In fiscal year 2019, nearly 960 committees under FACA played a key role in informing public policy and government regulations. GAO was asked to review the transparency and independence of FACA committees and data collected in GSA's FACA database. This report examines (1) selected agencies' and committees' adherence to transparency requirements; (2) their practices to help ensure that agency officials do not exert inappropriate influence on committee decision-making; and (3) the extent to which GSA's FACA database contained accurate, complete, and useful cost information for these committees. GAO selected a non-generalizable sample of 11 FACA committees serving three agencies, based in part on costs incurred and numbers of recommendations made. GAO analyzed documents and interviewed agency officials and committee members. GAO also reviewed FACA database cost data for the 11 committees. Congress should consider requiring online posting of FACA committees' documents. GAO is also making nine recommendations to agencies to improve FACA committee transparency and data accuracy. Agencies agreed with six recommendations, and GSA described steps to address recommendations to it. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or SagerM@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) distributed about $14.4 billion in 2019 Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments to farming operations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. According to USDA, these payments were intended to offset the effects of trade disruptions and tariffs targeting a variety of U.S. agricultural products. FSA distributed these payments to 643,965 farming operations. The average MFP payment per farming operation for 2019 was $22,312 but varied by county, ranging from $44 to $295,299. MFP payments for 2019 also varied by type of commodity. Three types of commodities were eligible for 2019 MFP payments: (1) nonspecialty crops (including grains and oilseeds, such as corn and soybeans); (2) specialty crops (including nuts and fruits, such as pecans and cranberries); and (3) dairy and hogs. Most of the 2019 MFP payments went to farming operations that produced nonspecialty crops. Less than 10 percent went to farming operations that produced specialty crops or dairy and hogs. USDA made approximately $519 million in additional MFP payments for 2019 compared with 2018 because of increases in payment limits—the cap on payments that members of farming operations can receive. FSA distributed these additional MFP payments to about 10,000 farming operations across 39 states. The amount of additional MFP payments that FSA distributed for 2019 varied by location. Farming operations in five states—Texas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota—received almost half of all additional payments. In May 2019, USDA announced it would distribute up to $14.5 billion in direct payments to farming operations that were affected by trade disruptions, following the approximately $8.6 billion USDA announced it had distributed for 2018. USDA referred to these 2018 and 2019 payments as the MFP. In comparison with 2018, USDA changed the 2019 payment structure for the three types of commodities that were eligible for payments. For example, USDA increased the payment limit for each of these three types. GAO was asked to review the distribution of MFP payments for 2019. This report examines, among other things, MFP payments for 2019 and how they varied by location, farming operation, and type of commodity, as well as additional MFP payments for 2019 compared with 2018 that resulted from increased payment limits. To accomplish these objectives, GAO analyzed data from USDA and interviewed agency officials knowledgeable about the data. For more information, contact Steve Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced that Ronald Wyatt, 22, pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to intentionally threatening physical harm to a female victim, T.P., to obstruct T.P.’s free exercise of religion. As part of his plea agreement, Wyatt admitted that he targeted T.P., who is African-American, because of her race. 
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    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced an agreement with the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, to resolve allegations that the Borough violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying zoning approval for an Orthodox Jewish congregation to construct a worship center on its property. 
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  • VA Disability Benefits: VA Should Continue to Improve Access to Quality Disability Medical Exams for Veterans Living Abroad
    In U.S GAO News
    The number of disability claims for veterans living abroad—in foreign countries or U.S. territories—increased 14 percent from fiscal years 2014 to 2019. During this time period, claims processing time frames improved. In fiscal year 2019, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) approved comparable percentages of disability claims for veterans living abroad and domestically—63 percent and 64 percent respectively. However, for a subset of these claims—those where veterans likely received a disability medical exam scheduled by Department of State (State) embassy staff—approval rates were often lower. Veterans' access to disability medical exams abroad improved as VBA has increasingly relied on contracted examiners, rather than embassy-referred examiners, to conduct these exams. According to VBA, this shift expanded the pool of trained examiners abroad and increased the frequency and depth of VBA's quality reviews for contract exams. These quality reviews help VBA and its contractor identify and address common errors, according to VBA and contractor officials. However, several factors continue to limit some veterans' ability to access quality disability medical exams (see figure). Factors That Impair the Access of Veterans Living Abroad to Quality Disability Medical Exams Unknown quality of certain exams: A subset of veterans living abroad receive disability medical exams from an embassy-referred provider. VBA does not systematically assess the quality of these exams. Without doing so, VBA cannot determine if such exams affect the approval rates of veterans who receive them or contribute to longer processing times and are unable to make informed decisions about their use. Travel reimbursement: Under current VA regulations, VA is not authorized to reimburse veterans for travel expenses for certain services incurred in foreign countries as it is for those incurred within the United States, including U.S. territories. Consequently, some veterans living in foreign countries may be unable to afford to travel to exams. Examiner reimbursement: The Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) Foreign Medical Program reimburses examiners referred by embassy staff via paper checks in U.S. currency. These checks may be slow to arrive and not accepted by foreign banks, according to State and other officials and staff we interviewed. Such payment issues can deter examiners from being willing to conduct disability medical exams and thus limit veterans' access to these exams in foreign countries. Of the roughly 1 million disability claims VBA processed in fiscal year 2019, 18,287 were for veterans living abroad. Veterans living abroad are entitled to the same disability benefits as those living domestically, but GAO previously reported that veterans living abroad may not be able to access disability medical exams as readily as their domestic counterparts. VBA uses medical exam reports to help determine if a veteran should receive disability benefits. GAO was asked to review the disability claims and exam processes for veterans living abroad. Among other things, this report examines disability claims trends for veterans living abroad and these veterans' ability to access quality disability medical exams. GAO analyzed VBA claims data for fiscal years 2014 to 2019; assessed data reliability; reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, policies, and contract documents; and interviewed employees of VBA, State, and other stakeholders. GAO is making five recommendations, including that VBA assess the quality of embassy-referred exams, VBA and VHA assess whether to reimburse beneficiaries for travel to disability medical exams in foreign countries, and that VBA and VHA pay examiners located by embassy staff electronically. The Department of Veterans Affairs concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or curdae@gao.gov.
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