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Coons, Warren, Blumenthal unveil Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act

Delaware News Desk
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

Sens. Chris Coons, D-Delaware; Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, and John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, introduced on May 11 draft legislation to ensure stronger oversight, accountability and transparency in the federal government's response to COVID-19 crisis.

Along with critical aid for hospitals, small businesses, families, unemployed Americans, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, established a $500 billion industry stabilization fund for large and midsize businesses and the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. Both of these programs, while vital to sustaining well-paying jobs, are also vulnerable to exploitation for personal, financial and political gain and could be misused by the Trump Administration and reward political allies and punish foes, at the expense of workers and consumers, according to a press release from Coons’ office.

The CARES Act imposed some basic oversight of these programs, but President Donald Trump immediately began undermining these provisions by reassigning and promising to muzzle independent inspectors general charged with pandemic relief oversight, according to the release. In the next relief package, Congress must pass stronger oversight, accountability, transparency, ethics and anti-corruption provisions. The provisions must be core to any relief bill to ensure taxpayer dollars serve the interests of the American people.

"Every single penny of taxpayer money allocated by Congress for COVID-19 relief should go to families, communities and businesses in need, period," said Coons. "We have to ensure that aid is going to workers and businesses who need it most, not just the businesses with the most political connections. This important legislation will ensure that inspectors general can do their jobs and provide real accountability for the trillions in taxpayer dollars we're investing to keep our economy afloat. Congress must include real oversight in the next COVID-19 relief package."

The CORE Act is endorsed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Open the Government, the Project On Government Oversight, Public Citizen, and Transparency International U.S. Office.

The CORE Act would:

— Prohibit conflicts of interest: The bill addresses and eliminates conflicts arising in the selection or hiring of contractors or advisors and the distribution of relief grants and loans, similar to the conflicts provisions in the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bill further requires federal ethics officials to impose revolving door restrictions on officials involved in the administration of relief; requires White House task force members who work on pandemic response to file public reports detailing their financial interests; and expands the scope of CARES Act conflicts prohibitions on industry assistance going to certain companies affiliated with senior government officials to include small business aid and additional senior officials. The bill provides an additional $25 million to the Office of Government Ethics to administer these rules.

— Strengthen the Congressional Oversight Commission: The bill grants Congressional Oversight Commission, which was established in the CARES Act and sits beyond the resident's reach, with subpoena authority for testimony and documents and expands its jurisdiction to include all COVID-19 relief funding, including the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program.

— Strengthen CARES Act Executive Branch Accountability & Oversight Entities: The bill requires the Treasury Secretary to submit a weekly list of any instances in which the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Relief or the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee, both established in the CARES Act, believe the executive branch has unreasonably denied them information in the course of their oversight. If the Treasury Secretary omits or misrepresents instances of wrongdoing to Congress, he would be liable for perjury. If the Treasury Secretary fails to provide a required filing, the bill prevents the Secretary and any other senior political appointee in the Treasury Department from being paid.

— Protect whistleblowers: The bill establishes strong whistleblower protections for government employees, government contractors and private sector workers, including essential workers, who may witness waste, fraud, or abuse or be victims of misconduct. These provisions, modeled after the protections Congress included in the 2009 Recovery Act, would protect Americans who call out wrongdoing, protect against all retaliation and establish a safe, secure and anonymous process for whistleblowers' claims to be investigated by IGs. The bill also establishes a direct channel for whistleblowers to submit complaints directly to the SIGPR, PRAC and the Congressional Oversight Commission.

— Restrict and disclose lobbying and political spending: The bill requires lobbyists to make monthly disclosures regarding all lobbying related to COVID-19 relief spending or lending. The bill also codifies the Obama Administration's restrictions on Recovery Act lobbying activity, which would restrict all COVID-19 relief lobbying activity to public, written submissions and prohibit closed door meetings and phone calls between government officials and companies seeking relief. Monthly disclosures would include any documents provided by those companies to government officials, including White House staff. Additionally, any company that receives a direct grant or loan from Treasury, after enactment of the bill, would be prohibited from engaging in political spending or lobbying expenditures for at least a year after any loan is fully repaid. Finally, the bill bolsters the ability of the Justice Department to enforce lobbying violations under this section.

— Improve transparency and disclosure around industry stabilization funds: The bill dramatically improves transparency about where industry stabilization funds are going. It requires any recipient of emergency funding or support, including contractors and grantees, to provide regular, public reporting about how that money is being used. The bill codifies the Federal Reserve Board's announcement that it will disclose the names and amounts borrowed for each participant in their lending facilities backstopped with CARES Act money and requires recipients to provide a detailed description of how the assistance was used. The bill requires recipients to disclose compensation and workforce data, including the mean, median, and minimum wages of all non-executive employees; the number of workers before and after the receipt of assistance; and the salaries of executives, including bonuses and capital distributions. The bill further requires certain corporations that receive financial assistance to disclose whether they have been charged with violations of federal law and the nature of those alleged violations. It also ensures more transparency for the Paycheck Protection Program by requiring the Small Business Administration to publicly disclose on its website, on a weekly basis, basic information about lenders and recipients, including loan amounts. Finally, the bill automatically discloses the text of contracts held by companies involved in the administration of relief.

— Strengthen enforcement: The bill allows any individual harmed by a company's misuse of industry stabilization funds to seek recourse through the courts to ensure that harmed parties, like workers fired after a company committed to not fire anyone after receiving funds, have the ability to bring private lawsuits against aid recipients who do not adhere to the terms and seek damages. The bill also holds senior executives of companies that violate assistance terms personally liable to taxpayers, including by having their executive compensation.