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40 groups call on House panel to investigate Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds

40 groups call on House panel to investigate Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds
© Greg Nash

A coalition of 40 organizations from across the political spectrum is calling for a congressional investigation into how the Pentagon used $1 billion in coronavirus relief funds.

In a letter to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, the groups also urged lawmakers to consider passing a new bill to suspend the Department of Defense's (DOD) authority to use the funding.

“We believe the Pentagon’s decision-making with these funds, as recently reported, violates congressional intent at minimum, and represents a significant breach of trust with the taxpayers who fund the military’s budget and its emergency spending,” the organizations wrote in the letter, obtained by The Hill ahead of its public release.

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The letter was organized by progressive group Win Without War, the right-leaning National Taxpayers Union and the Project on Government Oversight.

“We believe that the select subcommittee should investigate when, how, and why the Pentagon decided that it could use these specific CARES Act funds in contravention of Congressional intent,” the letter said. “Any findings should be shared with the public to the maximum extent practicable. We would also ask that the select subcommittee consider recommending a rescission of DoD’s budget authority for this $1 billion fund in order to ensure Congress’s constitutional spending authority is not being violated.”

A subcommittee spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, which comes after a Washington Post report Tuesday detailed how the Pentagon has used most of a $1 billion fund allocated by the CARES Act on defense contractors rather than medical supplies.

The DOD awarded contracts for jet engine parts, body armor and dress uniforms, among other military equipment, which critics argue is in contravention of the CARES Act stipulation that the funds be used to “prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus.”

The Pentagon has defended itself, arguing the money was never intended to be restricted to medical supplies, that it kept Congress fully informed of its plans and that helping the defense industrial bases through the pandemic is an appropriate response to the COVID-19 crisis.

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“As indicated by recent reporting, there appears to be a misunderstanding by some about what the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES” Act) did and did not do with respect to the Department of Defense,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a seven-paragraph statement Wednesday.

“The CARES Act did not limit — nor did it intend to limit in its language — the use of Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III to only medical resources,” he added. “As part of the efforts to mitigate economic damage, the act allowed monies to be spent to support individuals and industries that had been impacted by COVID. This is exactly what DOD has done.”

While the Post report provided new details on the exact contracts the Pentagon has awarded, the department notified Congress in late May it planned to use $688 million of the funding to shore up the defense industrial base. Several news outlets, including the Post, reported on the notification at the time.

Ellen Lord, under secretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, also testified before the House Armed Services Committee in June on plans to use funding on the defense industrial base (DIB).

Those disclosures prompted the House Appropriations Committee in July to write in a report accompanying the annual defense spending bill that “the committee’s expectation was that the department would address the need for PPE [personal protective equipment] industrial capacity rather than execute the funding for the DIB.”

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Nonetheless, the Post report set off a new wave of outrage. On Tuesday, two House Democrats called for a congressional investigation into the issue.

“For the administration to choose to use funds Congress made available to fight COVID-19 on the wish lists of defense contractors, instead of first protecting troops and the general public from the spread of the coronavirus, is unconscionable and should be investigated fully and prosecuted if warranted,” Reps. Mark PocanMark William PocanCutting defense spending by 10 percent would debilitate America's military Progressive lawmakers call for United Nations probe into DHS 'human rights abuses' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Barrett touts independence to sidestep confirmation questions MORE (D-Wis.) and Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeCutting defense spending by 10 percent would debilitate America's military Democrats accuse Kushner of 'casual racism' over comments about Black Americans Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts MORE (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to several committee chairs Tuesday.

In a separate statement Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Administration notifies Congress it plans to approve F-35 sale to UAE | VMI votes to remove Stonewall Jackson statue after allegations of racism| House defense panel chairman: Trump has 'no plan' to leave Afghanistan by Christmas House defense panel chairman: Trump has 'no plan' to leave Afghanistan by Christmas Governors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final defense policy bill MORE (D-Wash.) said the administration “carved up this billion-dollar appropriation and spent three dollars on defense contracts for every dollar it spent on acquiring health resources.”

“With the safety and lives of our health care, first responder, and essential workforces at stake, the department must be held accountable to administer the funding in the way Congress intended,” Smith said.

In their letter Thursday, the organization highlighted ongoing national shortages of protective equipment such as N95 masks, gowns and gloves, arguing the Pentagon “spends more on military bands annually than it has spent on securing N95 masks.”

“It’s unconscionable that the department would prioritize defense contractor wishlists over the health and safety of the American people,” Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, said in a statement. “Congress was clear that it wanted the department to use its powers to address PPE shortages that continue to this day, and the department shirked its duties.”