Guest Editorials, Opinion

Will we ever truly know the depth of pandemic fraud?

The late American satirist P.J. O’Rourke once cracked that “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” The $32 trillion national debt is one testament to the accuracy of his observation. The billions and billions of dollars that Washington squandered during the pandemic is yet another. 

The Associated Press on Monday unveiled the results of an investigation headlined “The Great Grift,” cataloging how the federal government got ripped off in its effort to mitigate the economic carnage of COVID. The fraud was so widespread that it might be another two years before federal accountants can tally an accurate total. For now, however, the wire service report pegs the figure at about $420 billion — or 10% of the $4.2 trillion the government spent on pandemic relief. 

“Investigators and outside experts say the government, in seeking to quickly spend trillions in relief aid, conducted too little oversight during the pandemic’s early stages and instituted too few restrictions on applicants,” the AP wrote. “In short, they say, the grift was just way too easy.”  

To make matters worse, agencies failed to do their due diligence in many instances, such as consulting a “Do Not Pay” Treasury database that includes rogue contractors, tax cheats, felons and other nefarious characters. Michael Horowitz, the U.S. Justice Department inspector general who chairs the federal Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, told the wire service that using such safeguards would have caused only minor delays in the dispersal of COVID relief and would have saved taxpayers billions. 

“It’s a false narrative that has been set out, that there are only two choices,” he said. “One choice is, get the money out right away. And that the only other choice was to spend weeks and months trying to figure out who was entitled to it.”  

Federal prosecutors have charged more than 2,200 people with illegally collecting checks and have thousands of investigations pending. But will anyone in the federal bureaucracy be held accountable for failing to abide by the usual precautions intended to protect taxpayers? Don’t bet on it. Had a private company lost billions of dollars due to such bungling, it would fast be out of business, its executives in the unemployment line. In Washington, this is business as usual. 

The stark difference is that, if private entities act foolishly, they risk their own financial health or investor cash. Washington, on the other hand, plays with other people’s money, so who cares? Which is why the country is barreling toward the fiscal cliff, as an empty whiskey bottle rattles around on the floorboard. 

This editorial first appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.