The Government Accountability Office on Thursday called into question Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s management of the $3 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus package. An audit found that stimulus payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion were sent to 1.1 million dead people. Since President Donald Trump’s name was on those checks — at his insistence so he could take credit for the payments — he now must share responsibility with Mnuchin for what is unquestionably a major blunder.
The GAO is an independent watchdog that reports to Congress. Its ability to ferret out the facts and report them without administration censorship goes to the heart of why independent oversight by auditors and inspectors general is essential, especially in the Trump era.
Trump has fired multiple government inspectors general, including last month’s ouster of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, after their findings were deemed to have implicated the administration in wrongdoing. Linick was investigating multiple potential improprieties by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In April, Trump fired the intelligence community inspector general who had alerted Congress to a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine in exchange for political favors.
Mnuchin has argued that $600 billion in government loans to businesses during the pandemic shutdown should not be subject to public disclosure, asserting that the names and amounts of the loans constituted “proprietary information.” That came on the heels of revelations that major corporations with healthy financial portfolios applied for and received pandemic assistance. Mnuchin’s refusal to disclose aid recipients smacked of an attempt to avert more such embarrassments.
Trump has insisted that he maintain full authority to fire auditors keeping track of stimulus spending. The GAO findings underscore exactly why the entire $3 trillion emergency aid package must be independently audited and kept free of administration censorship.
Thursday’s report warned that the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury “face additional risks related to making improper payments” because of inadequate safeguards to sift eligible recipients from fraudulent or ineligible ones. Officials at the Internal Revenue Service warned of exactly this problem back in March, as the stimulus package was being drafted, the GAO report stated.
A safeguard program has been in place for the past seven years using death records to ensure deceased individuals weren’t sent government checks, but in its haste to get disbursements in the mail, Treasury bypassed the normal filters. It’s not clear how the administration plans to recover any lost funds.
Honest mistakes happen in emergencies. Ethically minded officials understand that auditors are there to help identify gaps and correct mistakes. But Trump has a troubling tendency to take it personally and shoot the messenger whenever embarrassing revelations go public. That’s why now, more than ever, this administration must never be trusted with the people’s money unless rigorous, independent oversight is included as mandatory in the package.
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