Sens. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, and the chair of the House Democracy Reform Task Force Representative John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, officially introduced the Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act, legislation that would ensure stronger oversight, accountability, and transparency in the federal government's response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Since unveiling draft legislation May 12, support has grown for Congress to pass the CORE Act which now has endorsements from 57 organizations, eight Senate original co-sponsors and 18 House co-sponsors.
"Every single penny of taxpayer money allocated by Congress for COVID-19 relief should go to families, communities and businesses in need, period," said Coons. "We have to ensure that aid is going to workers and businesses who need it most, not just the businesses with the most political connections. This important legislation will ensure that inspectors general can do their jobs and provide real accountability for the trillions in taxpayer dollars we're investing to keep our economy afloat."
The CORE Act would:
— Prohibit conflicts of interest: The bill addresses and eliminates conflicts in the selection or hiring of contractors or advisors and the distribution of relief grants and loans, similar to the conflicts provisions in the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bill further requires Federal ethics officials to impose revolving door restrictions on officials involved in the administration of relief; requires White House task force members who work on pandemic response to file public reports detailing their financial interests; and expands the scope of CARES Act conflict of interest prohibitions on industry assistance going to certain companies affiliated with senior government officials to include small business aid and additional senior officials. The bill provides an additional $25 million to the Office of Government Ethics to administer these rules.
— Empower and protect Inspectors General: The bill requires that inspectors general can only be fired for good cause and requires the president to inform Congress when any IG, including an acting IG, is removed from their post. The bill further requires that IG vacancies be filled automatically by the first assistant to the last IG and that acting IGs enjoy civil service protections, ensuring that they have some recourse if they face retaliation. Any member of the staff of an unlawfully fired IG would be allowed to file suit to challenge the firing, as would any member of the public harmed as the result of such action. The president's decision to fire or otherwise discipline an IG or acting IG would trigger an automatic, public review by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Integrity.
— Strengthen the Congressional Oversight Commission: The bill grants the Congressional Oversight Commission, which was established in the CARES Act, with subpoena authority for testimony and documents and expands its jurisdiction to include all COVID-19 relief funding, including the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program.
— Strengthen CARES Act Executive Branch accountability and oversight entities: The bill requires the Treasury Secretary to submit a weekly list of any instances in which the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Relief or the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee — both established in the CARES Act — believe the executive branch has unreasonably denied them information in the course of their oversight. If the Treasury secretary omits or misrepresents instances of wrongdoing to Congress, he would be liable for perjury. If the Treasury secretary fails to provide a required filing, the bill prevents the secretary and any other senior political appointee in the Treasury Department from being paid.
— Protect whistleblowers: The bill establishes strong whistleblower protections for private sector workers, including essential workers, and government contractors who may witness waste, fraud or abuse or be victims of misconduct related to Coronavirus relief. These provisions, modeled after the whistleblower protections Congress included in the 2009 Recovery Act, would protect Americans who call out wrongdoing, protect against all retaliation, and establish a safe, secure and anonymous process for whistleblowers' claims to be investigated by OSHA. The bill also establishes a direct channel for whistleblowers to submit complaints directly to the SIGPR, PRAC and the Congressional Oversight Commission. The provision to protect whistleblowers was drafted with Sen. Harris.
— Restrict and disclose lobbying and political spending: The bill requires lobbyists to make monthly disclosures regarding all lobbying related to COVID-19 relief spending or lending. The bill also codifies the Obama administration's restrictions on Recovery Act lobbying activity, which would restrict all COVID-19 relief lobbying activity to public, written submissions and prohibit closed door meetings and phone calls between government officials and companies seeking relief. Monthly disclosures would include any documents provided by those companies to government officials, including White House staff. Additionally, any company that receives a direct grant or loan from Treasury, after enactment of the bill, would be prohibited from engaging in political spending or lobbying expenditures for at least a year after any loan is fully repaid. Finally, the bill bolsters the ability of the Justice Department to enforce lobbying violations under this section.
— Improve transparency and disclosure around industry stabilization funds: The bill dramatically improves transparency about where industry stabilization funds are going. It requires recipients of emergency funding or support, including contractors and grantees, to provide regular, public reporting about how that money is being used. The bill codifies the Federal Reserve Board's announcement that it will disclose the names and amounts borrowed for each participant in their lending facilities backstopped with CARES Act money and requires recipients to provide a detailed description of how the assistance was used. The bill requires recipients to disclose compensation and workforce data, including the mean, median and minimum wages of all non-executive employees; the number of workers before and after the receipt of assistance; and the salaries of executives, including bonuses and capital distributions. The bill further requires certain corporations that receive financial assistance to disclose whether they have been charged with violations of federal law and the nature of those alleged violations. It also ensures more transparency for Paycheck Protection Program by requiring the Small Business Administration to publicly disclose on its website, on a weekly basis, basic information about lenders and recipients, including loan amounts. Finally, the bill automatically discloses the text of lucrative contracts held by companies involved in the administration of relief.
— Strengthen enforcement: The bill allows any individual harmed by a company's misuse of industry stabilization funds to seek recourse through the courts to ensure that harmed parties, like workers fired after a company committed to not fire anyone after receiving funds, have the ability to bring private lawsuits and seek damages against aid recipients who do not adhere to aid terms. The bill also holds senior executives of companies that violate assistance terms personally liable to taxpayers, including by having their executive compensation seized.
A bill summary is available at bit.ly/2AuuyGD. The bill text can be viewed at bit.ly/3d5vFtB.