Justice Dept. names prosecutor to go after pandemic fraud

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Flanked by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, left, and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a meeting at the Justice Department, Thursday, March 10, 2022 in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque, Pool via AP)

The Justice Department named a chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud Thursday, following through on President Joe Biden's State of the Union promise to go after criminals who stole billions in relief money.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Kevin Chambers, an associate deputy attorney general, will lead criminal and civil enforcement efforts targeting pandemic-related fraud. Monaco on Thursday convened the department's COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force, which includes nearly 30 agencies that administer and oversee pandemic relief funding.

The Justice Department has already taken enforcement actions related to more than $8 billion in suspected pandemic fraud, Monaco and Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday. That includes bringing charges in more than 1,000 criminal cases involving losses in excess of $1.1 billion, opening civil cases against over 1,800 individuals and businesses for alleged fraud involving more than $6 billion in loans, and seizing more than $1.2 billion in relief funds.

Garland said they know their work is not done and the department remains committed to using every criminal, civil and administrative action available to combat and prevent pandemic fraud. Monaco added that the crimes are not victimless, that “every stolen dollar is taken from somebody who needed it.”

“Make no mistake, these criminals chose to line their own pockets at a time when Americans were hurting, at a time when many Americans were dying,” she said.

Biden said in his address last week that the Trump administration “undermined the watchdogs whose job was to keep pandemic relief funds from being wasted.” He announced the chief prosecutor position, saying he has welcomed the watchdogs back.

Garland talked to his team about his priorities on Thursday, his one-year anniversary. Reinvigorating white-collar crime enforcement was among them.

The COVID-19 relief programs were set up to help small businesses and the millions of people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. About $5 trillion in spending was approved.

The Secret Service said in December that potential fraudulent activity was nearing $100 billion. Most of it came from unemployment fraud.

That figure was based on reports from the Labor Department and the Small Business Administration, and was not a new Secret Service report. It did not include COVID-19 fraud cases prosecuted by the Justice Department. The White House downplayed the figure because the reports looked at issues in 2020 and dealt with improper payments, category that includes not only fraud but overpayments and other errors.

A Secret Service spokesperson said Thursday that the agency did not have an updated number.

At the Justice Department, Chambers said he'll prioritize prosecuting large criminal organizations that commit some of the most far-ranging fraud, many using identity theft, and target overseas actors who saw the U.S. government's relief packages as an opportunity for personal gain.

Biden wants Congress to provide more resources to prosecute egregious pandemic fraud and increase penalties. He plans to announce a new executive order on preventing identity theft in public benefits programs in the coming weeks.

“With a Chief Pandemic Prosecutor now in place, the Department of Justice will escalate our efforts to crack down on bad actors,” Biden said in a statement following the announcement that Chambers had been appointed.

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McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island.