A group of congressional Democrats has introduced legislation intended to ensure “stronger oversight, accountability and transparency in the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.”
The Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics (CORE) Act (S.3855) aims to be part of any relief bill to “ensure taxpayer dollars do not serve the interests of the wealthy or well-connected to the exclusion of the American people.” That includes the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which established a $500 billion corporate bailout fund and a Paycheck Protection Program for small business.
“The CARES Act imposed some basic oversight of these programs, but President Trump immediately began undermining these provisions by firing and promising to muzzle independent inspectors general charged with pandemic relief oversight,” a summary of the CORE Act states. “These actions send a clear signal that Congress must pass stronger oversight, accountability, transparency, ethics and anti-corruption provisions, including many provisions passed by Congress in the 2008 TARP bank bailout and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
“These provisions must be core to any relief bill to ensure taxpayer dollars serve the interests of the American people, not of the wealthy or well-connected.”
“The CORE Act would empower independent oversight, protect whistleblowers and stop government-sanctioned corruption and profiteering to ensure the health and safety of Americans come first,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who introduced the bill, said in a news release. “Congress must pass our bill in the next relief package to hold the Trump administration accountable as they hand out trillions of dollars in response to the COVID-19 crisis.”
“COVID-19 relief must go to those who need it most. American families, small businesses, healthcare providers, and state and local governments are hurting, and we must do all we can to block special interests and corporate insiders from gaming the system,” said Chair of the House Democracy Reform Task Force Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), among the sponsors of the bill in the House.
Specifically, the CORE Acts seeks to:
- Prohibit conflicts of interest in the selecting or hiring of contractors or advisers and in the distribution of relief grants and loans. It also would require White House task force members to report financial interests, and would provide $25 million to the Office of Government Ethics to administer these rules.
- Empower and protect inspectors general by providing civil service protections. Any firing or discipline of an inspector general also would trigger an automatic public review by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Integrity.
- Strengthen the Congressional Oversight Commission by granting subpoena authority and expanding its jurisdiction to include all COVID-19 relief funding.
- Strengthen CARES Act executive branch accountability and oversight entities by requiring the Treasury secretary to submit evidence of wrongdoing to Congress from the special investigator general for pandemic recovery and Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
- Restrict and disclose lobbying and political spending by lobbyists, prohibit companies that receive bailout money from engaging in political spending or lobbying expenditures, and bolster the ability of the Justice Department to enforce lobbying requirements.
- Improve transparency and disclosure for bailout funds.
- Strengthen enforcement by allowing individuals harmed by a company’s misuse of bailout funds to seek recourse, and holding senior executives that violate bailout terms personally liable to taxpayers.
The act includes a whistleblower protection bill from U.S. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) focusing on the misuse of federal dollars spent to combat the coronavirus and its economic impact. The “COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act” establishes protections for private-sector workers (including essential workers) and government contractors who report waste, fraud or abuse, or who are victims of misconduct related to coronavirus relief.
The bill also establishes a direct channel for whistleblowers to submit complaints directly to the special investigator general for pandemic recovery, Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and the Congressional Oversight Commission.
“As our country continues to address the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that federal assistance is used for its intended purpose rather than line the pockets of corporate executives,” Harris said. “Those who come forward to report misuse of funds or wrongdoing must be protected from retaliation or punishment.”
Stephen M. Kohn, chairman of the board of directors of the National Whistleblower Center and a partner in the whistleblower law firm of Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto, said the act is a “major step forward.”
“The bill permits whistleblowers who suffer retaliation to report COVID-19-related violations and to file a case in federal court and obtain compensatory and exemplary damages,” Kohn said in a statement. “These are among some of the ‘best practices’ affirmed in the bill.”
Among the provisions of the bill are a three-year statute of limitations for reporting complaints, no mandatory arbitration, a process for Department of Labor investigation, a right to jury trial in federal court, a “make whole” remedy and confidentiality.
The bill has 13 co-sponsors in the Senate, according to Congress.gov. In addition to Harris, they include former presidential candidates Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Given that Republicans control the Senate, however, prospects for as-is passage there would appear to be weak.
In other coronavirus-related news:
- The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 in long-term care facilities is almost 51,000, according to an analysis of state data by the Wall Street Journal. More than 250,000 cases have been reported in such facilities, although the actual toll likely is higher, the media outlet said.
- A Colorado district attorney has announced no charges would be filed against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after a state legislator accused the agency of falsifying COVID-19 death certificates, including those from a senior living community.
- At Pelican Landing, a Watercrest Senior Living assisted living and memory care community in Vero Beach, FL, all 158 staff members and residents have received negative test results for COVID-19.
- Minnesota health officials on Monday released guidelines for people wishing to “window visit” with residents in senior living communities and other long-term care facilities.
- Missouri on Tuesday eased restrictions to allow for outside and window visitation at long-term care facilities as long as proper social distancing protocols and other criteria are being met.
- Nebraska has announced several changes and guidance for long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidance aims to provide information on easing restrictions while maintaining safety of residents, information on baseline testing and phases of reopening.
- Oregon released a statewide plan for COVID-19 testing at long-term care facilities that will be implemented in two phases.
- Tennessee on Monday issued updated guidelines for assisted living and other long-term care facilities to allow visitors. The state Department of Health “strongly recommends social distancing options such as electronic or virtual communication,” however. Morning Pointe Assisted Living has constructed a visitation booth.