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Pandemic inspector general blasts DOJ memo, urges Congress to clarify mandate

A watchdog seeking to provide oversight of trillions of dollars in coronavirus spending and other relief has blasted a new Justice Department memo while calling on Congress to clarify his oversight mandate.

Brian Miller, the Treasury Department’s special inspector general for pandemic recovery (SIGPR), said Friday that a decision this week by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has “permanently reduced oversight” of specific relief programs implemented during the coronavirus pandemic.

Miller in his quarterly report to Congress warned that his efforts have been limited after the OLC held that his oversight jurisdiction applies only to Treasury’s direct loans and the Federal Reserve’s lending programs but not to the Coronavirus Relief Fund, Payroll Support Program and Paycheck Protection Program.

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The three programs were established by various acts of Congress last year to provide support to airline employees, states, cities and small businesses impacted by lockdown orders and safety restrictions amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Miller in his Friday report said that his office had “been met with resistance” for several months from the Treasury Department and the Treasury inspector general over his oversight on the Coronavirus Relief Fund and the Payroll Support Program. 

Miller, who was appointed by former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE, said his office had been tracking fraud and “double-dipping” in relief programs but that starting in the final months of the Trump administration, a turf war among the various inspector generals has eroded his oversight.

The watchdog's update was first reported by The New York Times. The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment on Miller's report.

“All special inspectors general share concurrent jurisdiction with their counterparts and must partner with agency inspectors general to achieve their respective statutory oversight missions,” Miller wrote Friday. “There is nothing more frustrating to achieving these missions than turf battles.” 

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The pandemic recovery inspector general called on Congress to pass legislation to clarify his office’s “mandate to provide oversight of the Coronavirus Relief Fund, Payroll Support Program, and other pandemic-related programs managed by the Secretary of the Treasury.” 

Miller later in the report referenced his testimony during his confirmation hearing last year before the Senate, when he “promised to be thorough and truthful in alerting Congress ‘if we find out that things are not working well in a particular area.’”

“One year later, SIGPR’s jurisdiction has come to be viewed narrowly, not expansively, and my only conclusion is that ‘things are not working well,’” he wrote Friday.

In a statement provided to The Hill, the Inspector General and Pandemic Response Accountability Chair (PRAC) Michael Horowitz stated that, "The public can rest assured that the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and the Treasury Inspector General will continue to conduct robust, aggressive, and independent oversight over all pandemic-related spending, including the two programs covered by the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel opinion."

The report also contained a letter dated Tuesday from Laurie Schaffer, the Treasury Department’s principal deputy general counsel, who argued that Miller had oversight of only Treasury’s direct loans and investments in Federal Reserve facilities, with the other relief funds being tracked by other oversight bodies. 

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“Treasury is dedicated to the prevention of waste, fraud and abuse, and we are committed to being responsive and helpful to S.I.G.P.R.,” Schaffer wrote.

Daniel Koffsky, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, wrote in the opinion dated Thursday that his office had concluded that language in the Cares Act passed last year limited the special inspector general's oversight jurisdiction.

A Treasury official told The Hill that the programs under the Cares Act are overseen by several bodies, including the Treasury's inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Oversight Commission. 

In a statement to The Hill, a Treasury spokesperson said that the agency "supports strong oversight, and we will continue to make sure all of our inspectors general, congressional committees of jurisdiction, and other oversight bodies have the information they need.”

The oversight dispute comes as President Biden hopes to pass trillions of dollars in additional relief proposals, including $4 trillion on jobs and infrastructure development programs. The administration is also charged with overseeing another $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief funds approved in March.

Updated: 6:04 p.m.