The head of the Government Accountability Office described the fraud he saw in COVID-19 programs as “epic.”

The comments by Comptroller General Eugene L. Dodaro, who is also head of the GAO, came during a Senate committee hearing chaired by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney on Tuesday.

The topic of the hearing, held by the Homeland Security Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight Committee, was reducing government waste, fraud and abuse. Romney, a Republican, is the ranking member on the committee.

Dodaro’s agency recently released an annual report with 100 recommendations to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government.

COVID-19 aid programs led to widespread fraud

While questioning Dodaro, Romney said he believes that “relative to the private sector, the fraud that is perpetrated against the government is much greater.”

“And I don’t know why that is precisely, but my expectation is it’s going to get a lot worse with (artificial intelligence). That the capacity of bad actors to hack into our system, our systems will be greater. … Do we need to dramatically up our game to prevent fraud?” he asked.

Dodaro described the fraud that he saw during the dispersion of money through COVID-19 programs as “epic.”

“I’ve been in GAO for 50 years. I’ve never seen it as bad. Now we’re throwing a lot of money at the issue,” he said.

He explained that allowing self-certification for the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program and unemployment insurance forms — while well-intentioned — let fraud run rampant.

“In this case, you had organized fraud. It wasn’t just national. It was international,” Dodaro said. “We’ve estimated that at a minimum unemployment insurance fraud (was) $60 billion.”

He proposed that Congress pass the Fraud Reduction and Data Analytics Act, which will empower federal agencies with best practices for preventing fraud.

Dodaro admitted that there is a tension “between sharing of information to catch the fraudsters and the protection of privacy,” which is why government agencies can be apprehensive to share data with other agencies.

The Internal Revenue Service has used a suggestion that Dodaro’s agency made: They tackled identity theft fraud by mandating that employers submit W-2 data early, in January instead of April, so that the agency has all the information to compare against paperwork filed by taxpayers.

“That’s helped a lot,” Dodaro said. “But there are still some gaps in that area.”

Addressing duplication in federal programs

Dodaro also testified about the issue of overlapping government programs. For example, in the U.S. there are over 130 programs administered by 15 different agencies focused on expanding broadband throughout the country.

Romney said he was blown away by that statistic.

“I thought that I had an eye-popping statistic when some years ago I noted that there were some 49 different federal job training programs and thought the duplication was outrageous,” Romney said.

Romney said he was trying to understand why such duplication happens. Part of it might be lawmakers fashioning and passing bills on subjects that are important to voters, he said.

“We don’t really spend a lot of time asking whether there’s already something that deals with that. We get that passed and the executive branch dutifully sets up an agency or department or whatever to take it on,” Romney said. “And there’s never a cleaning up.”

He asked Dodaro how such programs can be consolidated or eliminated “without having tons of people and departments and wheels spinning and money being wasted.”

In the case of the broadband programs, Dodaro said that his department’s suggestion is for the Biden administration to create a national strategy.

“You have a number of these programs to build infrastructure, a number of them to provide devices to people. Another one is to help programs afford to be able to purchase broadband authority. None of them are really coordinated over a period of time,” he said.

He added that although 13% of Americans, about 42 million people, don’t have access to broadband, “everybody’s always trying to chase that.” Then there is internet speed, which continues to evolve as it did when 5G took over 4G.

“We’re committing $65 billion to the Infrastructure Investment (and Jobs) Act on top of about $40 some billion that’s already been spent,” he said. “And if you date back to the Recovery Act days in 2009, we were spending money then on broadband authority.”

Congress should require the Biden administration to come up with a national strategy for the “endless federal investment,” and a way to check it, he added.

But Romney said he is “a little frustrated sometimes” that Congress asks the executive branch “to do so much stuff that it just doesn’t happen.”