'I can’t speak negatively about the president': Trump’s watchdog purge is on the mind of the official charged with stimulus oversight
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When Congress was considering passing the more than $2 trillion coronavirus bailout two months ago, President Donald Trump made his vision for oversight clear. “I’ll be the oversight,” he said.
The CARES Act empowers a number of different offices to make sure the money is spent wisely and without favoritism. Shortly after he signed it into law, Trump ousted the inspector general who was slated to lead the oversight — one of five watchdogs the president has purged in less than two months.
Trump also issued a signing statement asserting that he can ignore oversight provisions of the bailout law and that Congress does not have to be consulted. “My Administration will treat this provision as hortatory but not mandatory,” he wrote.
We spoke to an official just hired to do one of the jobs Trump cited in his signing statement. She told us that Trump’s moves have made her particularly careful to avoid any “adverse” comments about the administration.
Linda Miller began work this week as the deputy executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, or PRAC. Miller spent a decade at the nonpartisan, independent Government Accountability Office, where she dug into the case of a crooked Navy contractor nicknamed Fat Leonard. She said she’s learned that corruption often starts at the top.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation with Miller. She spoke with “Trump, Inc.” co-host Ilya Marritz a few days before formally joining the PRAC. (Our episode also includes an interview with Bharat Ramamurti, a member of the bailout’s congressional watchdog.)
Trump, Inc.: You warned my producer when we booked this interview that there are a lot of things that you can’t talk about or won’t talk about. Just so I know, what are those things?
Linda Miller: Uh, anything that would be in any way adverse to the administration is something that I won’t be commenting on in any way.
Trump, Inc.: What do you mean by “adverse to the administration”?
Miller: I can’t speak negatively about the president or any of the decisions he’s made, particularly when it comes to the IG community. That’s the biggest, probably political football around my new role. The IG community is obviously under a lot of stress and scrutiny.
There’s a lot of politics, and people have been asking me what it’s going to be like to go work in the inspector general community. I can speak real broadly. I just won’t say anything that’s in any way derogatory about the president because, obviously in my role, I need to stay as neutral as possible in order to basically stay in my role, frankly.
Trump, Inc.: And that’s your judgment, coming into this job.
Miller: Right. That’s my judgment.
Trump, Inc.: I know that your career specialty is detecting risk of fraud. You did this at the Government Accountability Office. You also did it in the private sector. What are some of the frauds that you have uncovered?
Miller: My specialty is less in investigating fraud and more in helping organizations prevent fraud from occurring. So, often when a big fraud event occurs, I come in afterwards and help the agency or sometimes the private-sector company think about how they were vulnerable.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the very large Navy scandal, it’s affectionately known as the “Fat Leonard” scandal. A contractor who bribed a variety of senior government officials all the way up to admirals, in order to get information that would give him a competitive advantage.
That particular scandal was shocking for the scale and the scope. There were bribes involving prostitutes, and meals, and jewelry and all kinds of stuff.
And I often use that fraud example when I talk about how fraud manifests itself, and especially when leadership is in any way participatory in it. And I’ve always found that interesting, that people who otherwise wouldn’t accept a bribe or participate in a collusion scheme, when they see other people doing it, and the people that they see doing it are people they respect, they tend to think it may not be so bad.
Trump, Inc.: Right. You’re saying, if people at the top or near the top do it, everyone else thinks it’s OK.
Miller: Yup. Exactly. And it’s shocking how many fraud schemes are perpetrated by senior leadership of an organization. Often people below them won’t question decisions they make because they’re in charge. So they’ve got all this power and using that power, abusing that power, is a really common way that fraud shows up both in government, and in [the] private sector.
Trump, Inc.: So we are talking just a few days before you start work as the deputy executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the PRAC. By the time people hear this, you will be at the PRAC already. How are you thinking about how you’re going to do that job?
Miller: I’m really excited about the opportunities for this new role. I mean, the PRAC was created by the CARES Act, which is the coronavirus stimulus act. As most people know, there’s over $2.4 trillion of federal money that went out in that stimulus bill. And so there’s obviously an enormous opportunity for fraud to occur across a variety of ways, programs and benefit programs, different agencies.
Trump, Inc.: So what are the main categories of fraud that you’re going to look for? Help us think about where things can go wrong.
Miller: I would say No. 1 on my list of concerns is identity theft. The biggest difference between the Recovery Act back in 2009 and now is the vast number of breaches that have occurred in the last 12 years.
Obviously the [Paycheck] Protection Program has gotten a lot of scrutiny, and we will be looking at a deeper dive into [it].
And then I think another big area that I envision the PRAC playing a role is building out some advanced data analytics capabilities that can look across the different government agencies and really identify patterns, trends, with the aspirational goal of essentially being able to provide indicators and red flags to agencies. Because you know, most of the IG’s world is what we call “pay and chase.” The money’s gone out, and we’re trying to go back and get it back.
Trump, Inc.: Will you be looking at contracting as well?
Miller: Yes, definitely. Obviously when you put this much money out, and opportunities for contractors to gain an advantage over their competitors, they start to engage in a variety of fraudulent activities, including kickbacks and bribery and collusion, and all these sorts of corruption schemes. And friendships between leadership and contracting companies way too often plays a role in who gets a contract.
Trump, Inc.: At the beginning of this interview, I was actually kind of surprised you basically said, like, I cannot anger the president. So given that you have this concern about angering the president and knowing that investigations you do, or conclusions you draw, could anger the president, how do you do your job? I mean, see a lot of potential conundrums for you that you might face very, very quickly.
Miller: You know, actually, I don’t think we’re going to get on the wrong side of the president here at the PRAC. I think that what we’re really trying to do is go after unscrupulous actors who may have tried to get funding they weren’t entitled to.
We’re going to be looking at the bad guys outside of government. We’re going to be looking at the identity theft rings, and we’re going to be looking at the everyday bad actor who wants to cash in on a huge government program. And so we’re all on the same side here.
Trump, Inc.: I understand there are things that you don’t want to say, but the president has made it pretty clear that he sees government as a tool to reward allies and punish critics and enemies.
Here’s this huge pile of money that’s going out. It’s going out through executive branch agencies. One could imagine any number of scenarios where the president would be unhappy with a bright light being shined on bad things being done in those agencies or laws being broken in those agencies or rules being bent in those agencies. So if and when it comes to that moment, what are you going to do?
Miller: You know, the thing I’m being hired to do, and the thing I did for 10 years at GAO: to maintain generally accepted government auditing standards.
I’m a big believer in, my mom used to say, “Always keep your side of the street clean.”
Which really meant, focus on the things you can control. And for me, I’ve got a mission and I’ve got a job to do in this role. And I’m really excited and I feel a sense of responsibility. Really, truly, a sense of awesome responsibility to American citizens and American taxpayers to carry that role out. And nothing’s going to change about how I will assist and direct our organization in adhering to those standards.
And I think that’s what the country was founded on. And there’s a reason that the inspectors general were created in 1978. And I think the mission is as important now, if not more than it ever has been.
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