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02:44 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A central pillar in the oversight of the largest economic relief package in US history has warned lawmakers its authority may be curtailed by a Trump administration legal opinion.

The leaders of a committee of inspectors general tasked by law with overseeing the sweeping $2 trillion emergency economic recovery package, known as the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, said it faces “potentially significant transparency and oversight issues” related to oversight of the largest components of the law due to a legal finding by the US Treasury Department.

“We are writing to bring to your attention an issue that could impact the ability of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) and federal Inspectors General to provide effective oversight of over $1 trillion in pandemic-related funds, as well as transparency to the public about how those monies are being spent,” Michael Horowitz, the acting chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, and Robert Westbrooks, the committee’s executive director, wrote to four congressional committee chairs in a letter obtained by CNN.

The issue, according to the letter, pertains to a legal opinion drafted by the Treasury Department’s office of general counsel that finds reporting obligations do not extend to the portion of the law that includes the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program, as well as the nearly $500 billion designated for programs and lending facilities to aid mid- and large-sized businesses.

“If this interpretation of the CARES Act were correct, it would raise questions about the PRAC’s authority to conduct oversight of Division A funds,” the letter states. “This would present potentially significant transparency and oversight issues because Division A of the CARES Act includes over $1 trillion in funding.”

The existence of the letter was first reported by The Washington Post.

Monica Crowley, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department, didn’t directly address the legal opinion in a statement to CNN, but pointed to a wide range of oversight bodies keeping track of the various programs contained in the stimulus law. That law, Crowley said, “ensures that all Treasury-run programs are subject to comprehensive oversight by three inspectors general, the new Congressional Oversight Commission and the Government Accountability Office.”

“The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee’s scope under the CARES Act covers other programs that are not already reviewed by these overlapping oversight bodies,” Crowley said. “Further duplication of these oversight functions by the PRAC would not increase transparency or oversight.”

“They seem to be saying one thing while doing exactly the opposite,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement. “If the Trump Administration is committed to full cooperation and transparency with taxpayer dollars, it is unclear why it is manufacturing legal loopholes to avoid responding to legitimate oversight requests.”

The notification to lawmakers comes less than a week after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers he would not release the names of recipients of loans from the Paycheck Protection Program due to concerns about revealing “proprietary information and, in many cases for sole proprietors and small businesses is confidential information.”

That comment drew significant backlash from lawmakers who said that information should be made public.

Mnuchin, in a tweet on Monday, appeared to backtrack somewhat on his position, saying he would be having bipartisan discussions “to strike the appropriate balance for proper oversight of PPP loans and appropriate protection of small business information.”

But lawmakers have raised concerns over the Trump administration’s approach to oversight since shortly after the emergency relief package was enacted into law.

When President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act in March, he included a signing statement suggesting he would ignore several of the oversight requirements, including that the newly appointed special inspector general inform Congress if the administration refuses to cooperate with requests for information.

Trump then removed the acting inspector general for the Pentagon, Glenn Fine, after Fine had been selected to chair the PRAC, the group of inspectors general who will oversee the stimulus spending.

Despite the removal of Fine, the committee of inspectors general quickly moved to launch audits and investigations into the money deployed from the $2 trillion stimulus, as well as two related laws that preceded that legislation.

Unlike some other oversight entities, the way the committee is structured gives it an advantage into launching its oversight activities. Individual inspectors general can undertake initial audits and investigations into the implementation of the laws. They are then expected to coordinate their findings across the committee.

The committee is made up of 21 members from offices of inspector general across the federal government.