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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Public must demand accountability, oversight

The Columbian
Published: June 16, 2020, 6:03am

Imagine that you run a business. Now imagine that employees are handing out big chunks of company funds and are reluctant to tell you where that money is going. Or that one of your departments paid out phony invoices.

You probably would have some questions and launch investigations. In other words, during these chaotic times of the coronavirus pandemic and governments scrambling to get money where it is needed, oversight is more important than ever.

At the federal level, the Payroll Protection Program passed by Congress in response to the pandemic has provided 4.5 million loans worth more than $500 billion to businesses throughout the country. Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin testified before Congress that the Trump administration will not disclose the recipients of that money, claiming that such information is “proprietary” and “confidential.”

The problem is that we are the proprietors. The federal government is handing out money that has been generated by taxpayers — or will be generated by future taxpayers, if we ever begin paying down a federal debt that now stands at more than $26 trillion. The American public is the business owner and the debt holder; government officials are our employees. And like any business owner, we must be informed about where our money is going.

Last week, officials of the Government Accountability Office — the federal oversight agency — said the Small Business Administration also is withholding payroll protection loan data that has been requested as part of those oversight activities.

Democrats in Congress have complained about the administration’s obfuscation; on Monday, Mnuchin said he will speak with the Senate on a “bipartisan basis” about striking a balance between protecting the privacy of recipients and ensuring proper oversight.

Republicans should join Democrats in reminding the administration that there is no room for balance and full disclosure is necessary. The public, after all, is the biggest stakeholder in this issue.

Meanwhile, Washington’s state government also is in need of oversight. State Auditor Pat McCarthy last week announced two investigations into the state Employment Security Department — one into how the state was duped by phony unemployment claims, and another into ongoing delays in paying legitimate claims.

The employment department has acknowledged paying out between $550 million and $650 million in phony claims believed to be spearheaded by a Nigerian cybercrime network known as “Scattered Canary.” Officials have said about $333 million of the payments have been recouped with the aid of federal law enforcement.

The auditor’s office typically investigates only misconduct by public employees, but this expansion of its oversight is warranted. “We can go in and look at what happened, why it happened,” McCarthy said. “And what ways we can avoid it in the future.”

A letter signed by 37 Republican legislators urged the auditor to get involved, saying “public trust in government is so shaken by this malfeasance … we must do something to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Indeed. As the employers of government officials, the public must demand accountability and oversight, particularly when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the normal functions of government. At both the federal and state levels, billions of dollars are being doled out to those who need it. The people who provide that money must be assured that it is well spent.