WASHINGTON (TND) — The federal government may never know how much of the $5 trillion in pandemic aid got into the wrong hands but officials now have twice as much time to get some of it back.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation doubling the statute of limitations for prosecuting Paycheck Protection Program and pandemic-related Economic Injury Disaster Loan fraud from five years to 10.
“My message to those cheats out there is this: You can’t hide. We’re going to find you," Biden said before signing the pair of bills.
So far, more than $1 billion in fraudulently obtained pandemic aid funds has been recovered, according to Pandemic Response Accountability Committee Chair Michael Horowitz.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg. We expect tens of billions of dollars in fraud. As I’ve said before, it wouldn’t surprise me if the number exceeds $100 billion," Horowitz said.
Horowitz said the extended statutes of limitations mean fraudsters should no longer think they're "off the hook."
“We’re going to find people who’ve committed wrongdoing, who’ve engaged in fraud and this gives us the time to do it — particularly for the more elaborate difficult schemes including the fraud that occurred through overseas individuals because we want to chase the money that went overseas. That takes a fair amount of time," Horowitz said.
Tully Rinckey, PLLC, and criminal defense attorney Ryan McCall said it appears the federal government is starting to understand the level of fraud that occurred during the pandemic.
“Since day one, there were individuals who were out there just trying to see what they could get. I think for a long time, they probably thought they were getting away scot-free," McCall said.
A common theme in reports by the PRAC and other inspectors general is that speed took precedence over accuracy when pandemic funds were distributed.
According to PRAC, 91% of all PPP funds were processed during the first four weeks of the program. About 57,000 applications were under names on the Treasury Department's 'Do Not Pay' list. The IRS sent about $3.5 billion to deceased individuals.
“The notion that there were only two choices: 'get the money out and we’ll figure it out later or we’ll take a lot of time to figure out who was entitled to money,' is a false choice," Horowitz said. "The taxpayer should have some comfort in knowing that when they spend that kind of money to try and support people in need when the pandemic hit, businesses in need, individuals in need, that that money’s going to go to the right place.”
Prosecuting fraudsters and getting the money back come with their own sets of challenges. McCall points out that the government has multiple ways to get the money back, like garnishing wages and tax returns. He said he expects the feds to "use every tool in their toolbox."
“What we do know about the government is a lot of times, it may not necessarily be happening at the speed of sound but it is going to happen," McCall said.