Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a meeting at the Justice Department in Washington on March 10, 2022.

Kevin Lamarque, Pool via AP

The Justice Department on Thursday appointed a chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud, following President Joe Biden’s State of the Union pledge to prosecute criminals who have stolen billions of dollars in aid.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Associate Deputy Attorney General Kevin Chambers 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 action regarding more than $8 billion in suspected pandemic-related fraud, Monaco and Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday. This includes pursuing more than 1,000 criminal cases involving losses exceeding $1.1 billion, initiating civil lawsuits against more than 1,800 individuals and businesses for alleged fraud involving more than $6 billion in loans and the seizure of more than $1.2 billion in relief funds.

Garland said they know their work is not done and the department remains committed to using all available criminal, civil and administrative measures to combat and prevent pandemic fraud. Monaco added that the crimes are not without victims, that “every stolen dollar is stolen from someone who needed it”.

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

Biden said in his speech last week that the Trump administration “undermined the watchdogs whose job it was to prevent pandemic relief funds from being wasted.” He advertised the position of chief prosecutor, saying he had welcomed the watchdogs back.

Garland spoke to her team about her priorities on Thursday, her first birthday. Revitalizing the fight against white collar crime was one of them.

COVID-19 relief programs were put in place to help small businesses and the millions of people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. About $5 trillion in spending has been approved.

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

This figure was based on reports from the Department of Labor 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 addressed improper payments, a category that includes not only fraud but also overpayments and other errors.

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

At the Justice Department, Chambers said he would prioritize prosecutions against major criminal organizations that commit some of the most widespread fraud, many of which use identity theft, and target foreign actors who view the programs of US government relief 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 benefit programs in the coming weeks.

“With a chief pandemic prosecutor now in place, the Justice Department will step up its efforts to crack down on bad actors,” Biden said in a statement after Chambers’ appointment was announced.


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