Sen. Mitt Romney led a Senate hearing Tuesday to investigate widespread fraud in federal spending during the pandemic, when billions of dollars in relief spending were left unaccounted for.

The senator said he believes that stealing from the U.S. government is akin to stealing an American taxpayer’s hard-earned money.

“We agree that the CARES Act was critically important for the country at a critical time,” Romney, the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Spending, said in his opening remarks, referring to the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act.

But, he added, there was a lack of oversight on how the COVID-19 relief money was spent. Romney, R-Utah, said he is interested in recovering the money fraudulently taken while also taking measures to prevent the abuse in the future.

Romney’s biggest concerns related to COVID-19 fraud

Romney recalled a letter he wrote along with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., after the passage of the CARES Act in April 2020, asking then President Donald Trump to give Congress “a detailed plan on how the government would execute the use of those funds and accountability measures that we put in place to ensure that our dollars were spent efficiently and effectively.”

Romney said a chief concern for him was the degree of fraud the Small Business Administration reported, which was estimate as up to $36 billion.

But SBA Inspector General Hannibal “Mike” Ware’s reports show that instances of fraud were more widespread, with $300 billion in loans for small businesses potentially stolen, as CNBC reported in June.

“It’s an alarming figure in and of itself,” said Romney.

He asked who was involved in defrauding the government.

“Is it small-time individuals that (think), ‘I can make $25,000 bucks, I can make $50,000,’” he asked. “Is it organized criminals that, you know, have a system for doing this? Is it foreign entities, organized or disorganized?”

Michael Horowitz, the chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and an inspector general with the Justice Department, said it was all of the above.

“And the problem is it was so easy for some of these programs that it was almost an invitation to come in. So, we have foreign entities. Nobody checked foreign IP addresses to see if they were foreign IP addresses,” Horowitz said.

Romney interrupted and said, “They didn’t even have to put a U.S. address and so forth down — they could even put in anything and we just said, ‘Oh OK, here’s the money.’”

Horowitz confirmed that was the case since the SBA did not store IP addresses, which Romney said was “mind-numbing.”

The Utah senator asked what was the proportion of fraud committed by foreign entities.

Ware, the inspector general of the SBA, said that $5 billion went to foreign IP addresses — a number “significant enough that I led a U.S. delegation earlier this year that went to Nigeria to discuss partnerships in getting some of our money back that went to bad actors over there.”

Romney jokingly said he wondered why he wasn’t receiving investment opportunities from Nigeria anymore. “I think I know now,” he added.

‘Opportunistic nature’ of fraud related to COVID-19 relief funding

Horowitz offered a sense of “the opportunistic nature” of the fraud committed.

“We have one (Social Security number) that was used in more than 40 states because the states didn’t speak to one another, and that program is so decentralized,” he explained. “One of the concerns I think we all have is we’ve trained people at some level to say, ‘go try and defraud a federal program because it’s easy to do it,’ and that’s a bad message.”

Romney asked why people are so willing to defraud and steal from the government, and whether it is an issue of the penalties being too small.

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Ware said his agency’s agents found emails and text messages in one instance where people were routinely seen saying, “They aren’t checking anything.” In another instance, a person said he would commit fraud again, adding, “It was worth it. It was highly unlikely that I’d be caught doing this.”

“There were folks that committed fraud probably who wouldn’t normally commit fraud,” said Ware.

Romney noted that a credit card company couldn’t be defrauded this way, or they would be out of business.

“Yet, it happens with our government all the time,” he said. “We have to recognize that’s money that could go to Americans in need. It could go to help Israel and their defense of their land. It could help the Ukrainians. The idea that this money is being used for fraud is just simply outrageous.”

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