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The role is “not a political job in any way, shape or form” and “if we go out of business, then I think you're missing a key element of … oversight,” Brian Miller says.
After battles over his office’s jurisdiction and staffing and funding challenges, the special inspector general for pandemic recovery is hitting his stride.
“I think we’re doing great things. I think we're doing things that other law enforcement agencies aren't doing,” said Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery Brian Miller. “We have built-up the expertise in these programs to the point where we can advise federal prosecutors.”
The office, created under the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to oversee certain pandemic relief loans and investments, has been able to hire special agents, develop relationships with U.S. attorneys’ offices and help out with criminal cases. Hiring alone is “quite an accomplishment, especially during Covid times,” Miller said.
Miller–confirmed in early June 2020–said he hopes he has overcome some initial skepticism centered around his relationship with the Trump White House. “It's not a political job in any way, shape or form,” he said, noting that he was a career federal prosecutor for “most of my career on just straight law enforcement.” He was also previously inspector general for the General Services Administration for nine years.
As part of our series examining the pandemic oversight bodies, Government Executive interviewed Miller on April 1 about the almost two years he has been in his role and why he believes it is vital for his office to continue overseeing relief funds. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
GE: We last spoke almost a year ago [when the office was engaged in turf battles and facing hiring challenges]. Can you start off by telling me what your office’s biggest accomplishments have been since then?
Miller: Well, we've gotten staffed and we've also been able to obtain some results on the criminal area [such as in criminal convictions]. Getting the office up and running and getting it staffed, getting the right people in, getting people in with tons of experience and expertise and having it up and running, I think is quite an accomplishment, especially during COVID times.
Nevertheless, we were able to participate in criminal cases as early as April of 2021. You may recall that in one of our quarterly reports, I mentioned that we were having difficulty hiring special agents [and] investigators. Even though the CARES Act gave us law enforcement authority and gave us the authority to hire special agents, we ran into a problem with the Department of the Treasury that they were holding it up…They said we had to go get permission and go through all the steps within the Department of the Treasury to be authorized to hire investigators and special agents. We pointed out that the CARES Act explicitly gave us that authority; nevertheless, I went along and asked and sought permission. It was slow going. It was to the point of September  we still hadn't gotten the authorization.
I reported that to Congress and after I reported it to Congress, they said, “Oh, well you can, you can go ahead and hire special agents. It turns out you didn't need our permission anyway.” But that slowed us down. So, we didn't hire a special agent until December 2020.
And by April of 2021, there was an indictment under the Main Street Lending Program up in South Dakota that we participated in. There’s been a criminal information [a formal charging document with criminal charges, but unlike an indictment, it doesn't require a grand jury vote] that was filed and a woman pleaded guilty to that criminal information regarding defrauding the Main Street lending program. And we also had another case up in Baltimore that you probably read about…of a woman that was indicted in Baltimore for pandemic relief. [On March 31] there was a press release by the Middle District of Florida U.S. attorney's office … where another individual and companies [for which a] criminal complaint has been filed against them for among other things defrauding the Main Street lending program, and we participated in that. In fact, we have a great relationship with most U.S. attorneys across the country.
You've reported on our memorandums of understanding that we've entered into with a number of U.S. attorneys. And we've very quickly established very good working relationships with the U.S. attorneys and with the Department of Justice. We're working closely with the criminal fraud section at DOJ, and also with Kevin Chambers, the chief pandemic prosecutor. And we've been part of his task force for some time now and working closely with him … as well as a task force for the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
About a year ago you said there were “turf battles” with the Treasury IG office, which led to you asking the Office of Legal Counsel for an opinion that ultimately narrowed your jurisdiction. Now that the dust has settled, can you give an update on that?
Miller: We've always worked well with other oversight entities. We had a conflict with the Treasury IG regarding our jurisdiction, which I still believe was very clear in the CARES Act that we would have jurisdiction over the programs that the Department of Treasury administered. And so the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel rendered an opinion that effectively took away our jurisdiction over some of the key programs there. Some of the cases we were working on have gone on to the U.S. attorneys' offices [and they] have gone on to indict in those cases without us and without the Treasury IG.
We still have a good working relationship with the U.S. attorneys' offices. In fact, we still get called by them asking if we could work some cases. And of course, after the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, we cannot work some cases. So, we refer them to the Treasury inspector general and obviously we're happy to work with the Treasury inspector general and anybody at all who wants to work with us. There's a lot to do and I think teaming up and working together is the way that my office is used to working. A lot of us are former federal prosecutors, former assistant U.S. attorneys and almost every one of our cases involve multiple agencies and multiple IGs and the FBI. …That's how we operate is to work together with other law enforcement agencies, so that the victim, which is the United States taxpayers, they're vindicated in that we do the best job for the taxpayer, not for any particular office.
Another issue your office has encountered is funding. So, can I get your reaction to the fiscal 2022 appropriations you received as well as the president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2023? Is this sufficient to continue your oversight work?
Miller: Well, I'm delighted that the Congress came through and funded us for this year, so I'm very happy that they didn't let us run out of money this July. So we're in business for another year. We're in the president's [fiscal 2023] budget for $25 million and I'm delighted at that and very happy with the support that we've received from the administration and key senators and congressmen. Sen. [Chris] Van Hollen, [D-Md.,] was very instrumental in getting this funding for this year and Rep. [James] Clyburn, [D-S.C.,] was supportive as well and a number of other senators and congressmen. Sen. [Josh] Hawley, [R-Mo.,] in particular, even introduced a bill to restore our jurisdiction as well as give us funding.
I think we’re doing great things. I think we're doing things that other law enforcement agencies aren't doing. We have built-up the expertise in these programs to the point where we can advise federal prosecutors.
I think we are facing a second issue of our expiration date [being in] 2025. We have geared up now and are involved in cases that are being brought in and you have to remember that it takes a while to develop a financial fraud case. These are complex cases in terms of the investigation, you have to go through all the documents; we're going through all sorts of banking data and then when you see something out of line and a number of red flags that you suspect fraud, you still have to go through all the documents, double, triple, quadruple check, and make sure that you're right, because people's reputations are on the line. You never want to falsely accuse any innocent entity or person of any kind of fraud.
It takes a long time to develop the case to the point where you can actually put it together with the crimes that you believe may be committed, find the probable cause for that, to the point where you bring it to a U.S. attorney's office, or you bring it to the Department of Justice. That's called referral and you make the referral and then it takes a long time for the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney's office to work through that material, to decide whether or not there really is a case there.
And then that's not the end of it. They then will impanel a grand jury or bring it to a grand jury that's impaneled and the grand jury process takes a long time and eventually you'll come out with either an indictment from the grand jury. Sometimes as in the case from yesterday, it's a criminal complaint. The case that we're involved with in Oklahoma was a criminal information that the woman pleaded guilty to, so it takes a while even after it's at the U.S. attorney's office.
And then after indictment, you have to go through all the pretrial motions. You have to set a trial date. Often all that's moved, it gets moved and delayed. It takes years. It takes a long time to bring a case from investigation to conviction. And you have to remember this, we're doing this during the pandemic; some grand juries were suspended, others didn't meet frequently and there are all sorts of complicating factors to slow it down even more. So, the fact that we've been involved in indictments as early as April of 2021 and continuing on and increasing to the point where we had the criminal complaint filed yesterday, I think it is simply incredible and almost unbelievable … that we got together so quickly and are producing results so quickly. I think they're very good results too. And I think that it would be a loss to the nation, a loss of oversight, if we were to simply go away and not see these cases through to completion.
So, I'm afraid that if we did expire in 2025, many of the cases that are in the works would be dropped… I do think it's a shame that even when our jurisdiction was limited that some of those cases fell between cracks. But I think that we are putting together terrific cases and important cases to deter others from defrauding the pandemic programs and it would be a shame to go away. The other thing to remember is that some of these loans, they're not even coming fully due until 2025. And so, if we go out of business in 2025, who's going to oversee those loans? So, I do think it's important to have a short extension so that we could see the cases through to completion.
You mentioned earlier the support you’ve gotten from some Democrats recently, but almost two years ago after President Trump nominated you for the position, there was some skepticism from Democrats and outside groups for you serving in this position because of your previous role with the White House. Would you say that skepticism has waned?
Miller: Well, I certainly hope so. I was a career federal prosecutor for most of my career on just straight law enforcement and [now] we are just doing our job straight up and it's not a political job in any way, shape or form. And you just go in and you do the cases without regard to any partisan concerns, and that's what I'm used to.
The people I've hired come from U.S. attorneys’ offices and that's what they do as well. So, I really don't see any place for politics in this world, in this enforcement function. I get along well with the U.S. attorneys appointed by President Biden, as well as U.S. attorneys appointed by President Trump and throughout my career, I've always done that. I've served President [George W.] Bush and I served President Obama and I think they were both very happy with me.
Is there anything else I didn’t ask about that you would like to note about the past two years of your office or COVID-19 oversight overall?
Miller: I do think it's vital that we continue to provide oversight. I do think these programs need to be overseen and looked at carefully. I think there's a large amount of fraud out there. I'm not going to venture an amount. I believe the Secret Service put out an estimate, but anytime you're talking about fraud, you're talking about something that is hidden and the people that commit fraud intentionally hide it. So, it's hard to actually know how much fraud there is out there.
But, my sense is there's quite a bit of fraud in these programs. The emphasis was in getting the money out to the people that need it the most, as fast as you can, which is valid and they needed the money, but as a result, I believe there are many people that actually have intentionally, deliberately ripped off the program for their own benefit.
We're also looking at potential lenders and banks that may also be self-dealing. Whenever there is a large amount of money out there, people are going to try and divert it to their own ends and their own benefit. Unfortunately, that's human nature and I do think it's very important to keep track of this money, to oversee these programs and to make sure they're working correctly and have been working correctly. I just think it protects taxpayer dollars, protects the programs, the integrity of the programs and it would also be important to know what the mistakes are if Congress considers a program like this in the future, so they can know what worked and what didn't work.
It’s important to have oversight. That's why they created a special IG. That's why they have IGs in general. The IG Act was passed in 1978 and the idea was to have people within the agencies, experts in what the agency does, [to] provide effective oversight. The idea with the special IG is they're kind of parachuted into an agency, but the idea is that they will develop specialized knowledge of these programs and have the special expertise in these programs, so that they can effectively see them. If we go out of business, then I think you're missing a key element of that oversight.