Do not travel to Bolivia due to COVID-19. Exercise increased caution in Bolivia due to civil unrest.
Read the Department of State’s COVID-19 page before you plan any international travel.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 3 Travel Health Notice for Bolivia due to COVID-19.
Travelers to Bolivia may experience border closures, airport closures, travel prohibitions, stay at home orders, business closures, and other emergency conditions within Bolivia due to COVID-19. Visit the Embassy’s COVID-19 page for more information on COVID-19 in Bolivia.
Country Summary: Demonstrations, strikes, and roadblocks can occur at any time in Bolivia. Demonstrations can result in violence. Roadblocks and strikes may cut off traffic and restrict the flow of goods and services around the country. Domestic and international flights may be delayed or unexpectedly cancelled.
Read the country information page.
If you decide to travel to Bolivia:
Last Update: Reissued with updates to COVID-19 information.
- Justice Department Settles Claims Against Borough of Woodcliff Lake Involving Denial of Permit to Orthodox Jewish Group to Construct Worship CenterBy Sam NewsSeptember 15, 2020The Justice Department today announced an agreement with the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, to resolve allegations that the Borough violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying zoning approval for an Orthodox Jewish congregation to construct a worship center on its property.[Read More…]
- Justice Department Anticorruption Task Force Launches New Measures to Combat Corruption in Central AmericaBy Sam NewsOctober 15, 2021The Department of Justice today announced a tip line to help assist its Anticorruption Task Force fight corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, a key component of the Vice President’s work to address the root causes of migration.[Read More…]
- Secretary Michael R. Pompeo With Ben Shapiro of The Ben Shapiro ShowBy Sam NewsDecember 15, 2020Michael R. Pompeo, [Read More…]
- U.S.-Kenya Strategic ConsultationsBy Sam NewsOctober 21, 2020Office of the [Read More…]
- Two Men Plead Guilty in Multimillion-Dollar COVID-19 Relief SchemeBy Sam NewsNovember 8, 2021Two individuals pleaded guilty today in the Southern District of Texas for their participation in a scheme to fraudulently obtain and launder millions of dollars in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.[Read More…]
- Cameroonian Operator Charged in Fraudulent Online “Puppy Scam” that Exploited the COVID-19 PandemicBy Sam NewsDecember 7, 2020A criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Pittsburgh charges Desmond Fodje Bobga for his alleged involvement in a puppy fraud scheme perpetrated against American consumers. Fodje Bobga, 27, is a citizen of Cameroon who is in Romania on a visa to attend a university there.[Read More…]
- Vitol Inc. Agrees to Pay over $135 Million to Resolve Foreign Bribery CaseBy Sam NewsDecember 3, 2020Vitol Inc. (Vitol), the U.S. affiliate of the Vitol group of companies, which together form one of the largest energy trading firms in the world, has agreed to pay a combined $135 million to resolve the Justice Department’s investigation into violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and to resolve a parallel investigation in Brazil.[Read More…]
- Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Olena Removska of Radio Free Europe/Radio LibertyBy Sam NewsMay 6, 2021Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
- Justice Department Sues To Block Geisinger Health’s Transaction With Evangelical Community HospitalBy Sam NewsAugust 5, 2020The U.S. Department of Justice sued today to block Geisinger Health’s partial acquisition of its close rival, Evangelical Community Hospital. The complaint alleges that the agreement fundamentally alters the relationship between the parties, raising the likelihood of coordination and reducing Defendants’ incentives to compete aggressively against each other. As a result, the transaction is likely to lead to higher prices, lower quality, and reduced access to high-quality inpatient hospital services for patients in central Pennsylvania. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.[Read More…]
- Military Operations: Actions Needed to Better Guide Project Selection for Commander’s Emergency Response Program and Improve Oversight in IraqBy Sam NewsAugust 24, 2021Since fiscal year 2003, Congress has appropriated more than $46 billion dollars for relief and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The Department of Defense (DOD) is one of several U.S. agencies that administer U.S.-funded relief and reconstruction programs in Iraq. In particular, DOD manages the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), which is designed to enable local commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to respond to urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction requirements within their areas of responsibility by carrying out programs that will immediately assist the indigenous population. Thus far, Congress has appropriated more than $3 billion for CERP in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the program's inception, DOD has steadily increased its funding requests in response to theater conditions, and reported obligations have also grown substantially. DOD's funding requests have increased by more than a billion dollars from fiscal years 2004 through 2008. For fiscal year 2008, DOD requested $1.2 billion to fund CERP projects in Iraq and Afghanistan and plans to request an additional $507 million, primarily for CERP in Iraq. Furthermore, DOD's reported obligations for Iraq and Afghanistan have grown from about $179 million in fiscal year 2004 to more than $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2007. In addition, over the same period of time, the number of projects in both countries has grown from about 6,450 to about 8,700. According to DOD regulations, CERP is intended for small-scale, urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction projects for the benefit of Iraqi people. The guidance issued by the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) establishes 19 authorized uses for CERP funds, including transportation, electricity, and condolence payments. CERP funds can be used for both construction and non-construction projects. In Iraq, commanders follow Multinational Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) standard operating procedures for CERP, which expand upon DOD regulations. MNC-I guidance states that the keys to project selection are to (1) execute quickly, (2) employ many Iraqis, (3) benefit the Iraqi people, and (4) be highly visible. DOD regulations identify the roles and responsibilities that different offices play in managing CERP. The Secretary of the Army serves as the executive agent and is responsible for ensuring that commanders carry out CERP in a manner that is consistent with applicable laws, regulations and guidance. The Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is responsible for allocating CERP resources. Public Law No. 108-106 and subsequent laws require DOD to provide Congress with quarterly reports on the source, allocation, and use of CERP funds. The reports are compiled based on information about the projects that was entered by unit officials into the Iraq Reconstruction Management System, a database that tracks projects' status and maintains a historical record of all reconstruction activity in Iraq, including those projects funded by CERP. Because of significant congressional interest, we conducted this work under the authority of the Comptroller General to undertake work at his own initiative and examined the following questions regarding the CERP program in Iraq: (1) To what extent does DOD guidance establish selection criteria for CERP projects? (2) To what extent do commanders in Iraq coordinate CERP with other U. S. government agencies and with the government of Iraq? and (3) To what extent do DOD and MNC-I exercise oversight of CERP projects in Iraq?DOD has established broad selection criteria for CERP projects, which gives significant discretion to commanders in determining the types of projects to undertake. CERP is intended to provide commanders a source of funds that allow them to respond to urgent, small-scale humanitarian relief and reconstruction needs that will immediately assist the local Iraqi population. However, DOD guidance provides no definition for small-scale or urgent, which leaves commanders with the responsibility of developing their own definitions. Commanders we interviewed had varying definitions for small-scale. Our review of the quarterly reports to Congress demonstrated the wide spectrum in size and costs of projects. For instance, projects ranged from a waterline repair costing slightly more than $100 to an electrical distribution system costing more than $11 million. In addition, during our visit to Iraq, we observed three projects: a multimillion-dollar sewage lift station, a several hundred thousand dollar sports center and community complex, and a fruit and vegetable stand that had been renovated with a $2,500 grant. Commanders typically defined urgent as restoring a basic human need, such as water and electricity, or projects identified by the local Iraqi government as its most pressing requirement for the area. As a result, the scale, complexity, and duration of projects selected vary across commands. While the majority of CERP projects have cost less than $500,000, the number of projects costing more than $500,000 has increased significantly. According to DOD officials, factors contributing to the increasing number of CERP projects costing more than $500,000 include the lack of other available reconstruction money, improved security in the region and the fact that many of the immediate needs of the Iraq people were addressed during the initial phases of CERP. Commanders reported that they generally coordinated projects with the appropriate U.S. and Iraqi officials, as required by guidance. The officials include Iraqi government personnel as well as military and nonmilitary U.S. officials. MNC-I guidance further states that coordination with local officials is critical to ensure that a project meets a need and will be maintained and that numerous projects have been built that did not meet their intended purpose because of lack of coordination. MNC-I guidance notes that coordination efforts may include synchronizing CERP projects with complementary programs funded by United States Agency for International Development or other nongovernmental organizations within the commander's area of responsibility. While the MNC-I project approval process provides some oversight, the Offices of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), the Army and MNC-I have limited oversight of CERP in Iraq because they (1) do not require units executing projects to monitor them, (2) have not established performance metrics, and (3) have limited knowledge of projects under $500,000. Neither DOD nor MNC-I guidance establishes a requirement for units executing projects to monitor them. MNC-I guidance has a broad requirement for the MNC-I engineer to monitor reconstruction projects, but does not include a requirement for units executing projects to monitor them. No performance metrics exist for CERP. As we have previously reported, federal agencies should develop plans that establish objective, quantifiable, and measurable performance goals that should be achieved by a program. Although MNC-I officials have some visibility over projects costing more than $500,000 because they approve these projects, they have limited visibility and oversight for projects costing less than $500,000. The quarterly reports do not provide information about the number of projects completed during a quarter, the number of projects that have been started but not completed, or the number of projects that have not been sustained or maintained by the Iraqi government or the local population.[Read More…]
- Aviation Sanitation: FDA Could Better Communicate with Airlines to Encourage Voluntary Construction Inspections of Aircraft Galleys and LavatoriesBy Sam NewsSeptember 8, 2020Most commercial aircraft undergo voluntary inspections to ensure that galleys and lavatories are constructed and assembled to meet the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) sanitation standards, according to industry representatives. Twenty-seven percent of the inspections FDA conducted between fiscal years 2015 and 2019 found objectionable conditions. But in nearly all of these instances, the conditions identified, such as the need for additional sealant in areas where there was a gap or seam, were corrected by the airline or aircraft manufacturer during the inspection. However, some regional airline representatives told GAO that their aircraft do not receive these construction inspections, either because larger airlines with which they have contracts told them the inspections were unnecessary or because they did not believe the inspections were relevant to them. FDA provides these inspections free of charge, upon request of aircraft manufacturers or airlines, and aircraft passing inspection receive a certificate of sanitary construction. Representatives of one aircraft manufacturer said they view the certificate as beneficial because their customers see it as a guarantee that the aircraft was constructed in a way that decreases the likelihood of microbial contamination, pests, and insects. While the construction inspections are important, they are not required, and FDA does not proactively encourage airlines to request them. By developing a process for communicating directly to all U.S.-based commercial airlines, including regional airlines, to encourage them to receive construction inspections, FDA could better ensure that aircraft meet FDA sanitation standards to protect passenger health. An Airline Representative Applying Additional Sealant in Response to an FDA Inspection FDA faces several challenges in providing construction inspections and is taking steps to address these challenges. For example, the demand for inspections by manufacturers and airlines is unpredictable, and FDA inspectors are responsible for inspections at multiple locations. To help mitigate these challenges, officials we interviewed from four FDA field offices said they usually request advance notice from industry to allow the agency time to allocate the necessary resources for construction inspections. Voluntary construction inspections are the primary mechanism by which FDA oversees compliance with its required sanitation standards for the construction of aircraft galleys and lavatories. A report accompanying the House 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill included a provision for GAO to review FDA's process for ensuring proper sanitation in aircraft galleys and lavatories. This report (1) examines the extent to which aircraft are inspected to ensure compliance with FDA's sanitation standards, and (2) discusses challenges FDA faces in providing aircraft inspections and how FDA is addressing such challenges. GAO reviewed FDA guidance, interviewed FDA officials in headquarters and four selected field offices with high volumes of construction inspections, conducted site visits to meet with FDA inspectors, and interviewed representatives of selected aircraft manufacturers and airlines. GAO recommends that FDA develop a process for communicating directly with all U.S.-based commercial airlines to encourage them to request construction inspections. FDA generally agreed with our recommendation. For more information, contact Steve Morris (202) 512-3841 MorrisS@gao.gov.[Read More…]
- Attacks on Civilians in SyriaBy Sam NewsFebruary 2, 2021Ned Price, Department [Read More…]
- Virtual Currencies: Additional Information Could Improve Federal Agency Efforts to Counter Human and Drug TraffickingBy Sam NewsJanuary 10, 2022What GAO Found This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in September 2021. Therefore, this report omits sensitive information and data on selected federal agencies' activities to counter human and drug trafficking, associated use of virtual currency, and related challenges. Virtual currency is increasingly used illicitly to facilitate human and drug trafficking, according to GAO's review of agency documentation and data and interviews with officials. For example, the number of suspicious activity reports filed with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) that involve virtual currency and drug trafficking increased fivefold (from 252 to almost 1,432) from calendar year 2017 to 2020. However, in a sensitive version of this report, GAO found that data from selected federal agencies on virtual currency use for human and drug trafficking may not be consistently captured. Consequently, agencies may lack complete data when assessing or reporting on the illicit use of virtual currency in human and drug trafficking. In that report GAO made nine recommendations to selected agencies to enhance their data collection practices. Example of Virtual Currency Kiosk, Which May Be Used in Human and Drug Trafficking Selected federal agencies have taken actions to counter the illicit use of virtual currency in human and drug trafficking but face challenges. For example, FinCEN and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) oversee virtual currency entities. FinCEN imposes requirements for operators of virtual currency kiosks that are used to exchange virtual currencies for cash and are found in various locations such as convenience stores (see fig.). While kiosk operators are required to register with FinCEN, they are not required to routinely report the specific locations of their kiosks. This limits federal agencies' ability to identify kiosks in areas that have been designated as high risk for financial crimes and could involve human and drug trafficking. Reviewing registration reporting requirements and taking appropriate action, as needed, to better identify individual kiosk locations by operator could help FinCEN and IRS identify high-risk kiosk operators to monitor for compliance, while also improving information law enforcement has available to identify potentially illicit transactions. Why GAO Did This Study Virtual currencies are an emerging payment method for transactions, such as retail purchases. Virtual currency's anonymizing features can attract criminals' use to avoid detection when paying for illicit activities, such as human and drug trafficking. Thus, policy makers, regulators, and law enforcement have identified virtual currency, human trafficking, and drug trafficking as priority areas of concern. GAO was asked to review the use of virtual currency to facilitate sex and drug trafficking. This report examines (1) the use of virtual currency for human and drug trafficking and the extent to which U.S. agencies collect data on these topics; and (2) the extent to which U.S. agencies have taken steps to counter human and drug trafficking facilitated by virtual currency and challenges these agencies face. GAO analyzed data, reviewed documentation, and interviewed relevant officials at selected federal agencies.[Read More…]
- COVID-19: Continued Attention Needed to Enhance Federal Preparedness, Response, Service Delivery, and Program IntegrityBy Sam NewsJuly 19, 2021What GAO Found The nation is concurrently responding to, and recovering from, the COVID-19 pandemic, as the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined in recent months. Among the factors that have contributed to the decline in these metrics, the development and administration of multiple vaccines across the nation have been key. About 53.1 percent of the U.S. population 12 years and older—almost 150.7 million individuals—had been fully vaccinated as of June 23, 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Continuing to deliver “shots in arms” will be a priority for the federal government, as individuals yet to be vaccinated remain at risk from COVID-19 and as new variants of the virus continue to emerge. A successful vaccination program is seen as essential to further stabilizing the economy and safely returning to prepandemic activities, such as in-person learning for students in the 2021–22 school year. The economic and public health recovery from the pandemic and its effects remains fragile. Data from the Department of Labor show that labor market conditions improved in March, April, May, and June 2021 but remained worse relative to the prepandemic period. Additionally, new reported COVID-19 cases from June 5 to June 18, 2021, averaged about 13,000 per day—less than a tenth of the peak reported in January 2021 (see figure). Reported COVID-19 Cases per Day in the U.S., Mar. 1, 2020–June 18, 2021 Since GAO began reporting on the federal response to the pandemic in June 2020, it has made 72 recommendations. The agencies generally agreed with 57 of these recommendations and are in the process of implementing a majority of them; 16 of these recommendations have been fully implemented. GAO also made four matters for congressional consideration, three of which remain open. In this report, GAO is making 15 new recommendations in the areas of federal preparedness and response, delivery of benefits and services, and program integrity. GAO’s recommendations, if effectively implemented, can help improve the government’s ongoing response and recovery efforts as well as help it to prepare for future public health emergencies. GAO’s new recommendations are discussed below. COVID-19 Testing CDC has opportunities to improve collaboration and communication with stakeholders. Prior to the COVID-19 response, CDC had not developed a plan for enhancing laboratory testing capacity that identifies objectives and outlines agency and stakeholder roles and responsibilities for achieving these objectives within defined time frames. Doing so would be consistent with the stated goal of its own memorandum of understanding with public health and private laboratory partners and would also be consistent with other leading principles on sound planning that GAO has identified in its prior work. GAO recommends that CDC work with appropriate stakeholders to develop a plan to enhance surge capacity for laboratory testing. CDC agreed with this recommendation. CDC initially developed a flawed COVID-19 diagnostic test, which caused challenges for the rollout of testing nationwide. CDC has taken steps to improve its process for developing tests, but additional actions could help strengthen CDC’s preparedness and enhance the nation’s testing capacity during a future infectious disease outbreak. For example, establishing contracts with test kit manufacturers prior to a public health emergency could allow CDC to supplement the supply produced by CDC and aid in the rapid manufacturing and deployment of test kits during a future public health emergency. GAO recommends that CDC assess the agency’s needs for goods and services for the manufacturing and deployment of diagnostic test kits in public health emergencies, including the potential role of establishing contracts in advance of an emergency. CDC agreed with this recommendation. Strategic National Stockpile The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) contains a multibillion dollar inventory of medical countermeasures—drugs, vaccines, supplies, and other materials—to respond to a broad range of public health emergencies. The SNS can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the supply of materials may not be immediately available in affected areas during a public health emergency. The Department of Health and Humans Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) oversees the SNS. The Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE), an interagency group of experts, advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services in prioritizing, developing, procuring, deploying, and effectively using medical supplies and other countermeasures for the SNS. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, ASPR began restructuring the PHEMCE. This led to concerns from interagency partners regarding the effectiveness of interagency collaboration and transparency, such as a lack of clarity on how ASPR makes decisions about medical countermeasure issues, including for the SNS inventory. In addition, while the PHEMCE was being restructured, ASPR did not conduct SNS annual reviews from 2017 through 2019; these reviews result in recommendations to HHS regarding SNS procurement and are provided to Congress. According to the former Assistant Secretary who initiated the restructure, although PHEMCE was successful in advancing the development of medical countermeasures, its consensus-driven process did not reflect the urgency needed and PHEMCE proceedings created security vulnerabilities. ASPR officials acknowledged that the changes ASPR made to the PHEMCE from 2018 to 2020 did not fully achieve the desired aims and created other challenges. The office is in the process of reassessing and reestablishing new organizational processes for the PHEMCE, but it has not yet finalized planning documents, including an organizational charter and implementation plan, to guide those efforts. GAO recommends that ASPR develop and document its plans for restructuring the PHEMCE. The plans should describe how ASPR will ensure a transparent and deliberative process that engages interagency partners in PHEMCE responsibilities outlined in the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2019, including those related to SNS annual reviews. These plans should also incorporate GAO’s leading practices to foster more effective collaboration, while ensuring that sensitive information is appropriately protected. HHS—which includes ASPR—agreed with this recommendation. PHEMCE interagency partners raised concerns about the transparency of PHEMCE activities and deliberations, and ASPR lacked documentation of PHEMCE activities and deliberations after 2017. ASPR was unable to provide documentation to GAO regarding PHEMCE decisions or recommendations made from 2018 to 2020; the rationale for the changes to the PHEMCE; or PHEMCE meeting agendas and minutes from 2018 to 2020. Not maintaining such documentation is inconsistent with HHS’s policy for records management and leaves Congress and key stakeholders without assurance that steps taken are advancing national preparedness for natural, accidental, and intentional threats. GAO recommends that ASPR implement records management practices that include developing, maintaining, and securing documentation related to PHEMCE activities and deliberations, including those related to the SNS. HHS, including ASPR, agreed with this recommendation. The nationwide need for supplies to respond to COVID-19 quickly exceeded the quantity of supplies contained in the SNS. Thus, ASPR used procurement processes in addition to its standard process, including direct shipment of supplies from vendors. Through this direct shipment process, supplies purchased by ASPR were not used to replenish the SNS but instead were primarily distributed from vendors directly to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments. Although ASPR has documented policies and procedures for its standard procurement process, ASPR did not have documented policies and procedures, including related control and monitoring activities, to address payment integrity risks for its direct shipment procurement process. Without written policies and procedures documenting how ASPR tracks the direct shipment and receipt of supplies before issuing payments, there is an increased risk that ASPR may make improper payments to vendors for incorrect supplies or quantities or for supplies that the intended recipients did not receive. In addition, it is difficult for management to assess the adequacy of controls over the direct shipment procurement process, and ASPR lacks assurance that its staff fully understand the process and properly and consistently perform their duties. GAO recommends that, to strengthen the current procedures for the SNS, HHS update its policies and procedures for the SNS, including related control and monitoring activities, to document the direct shipment procurement process and address payment integrity risks. Although HHS, including ASPR, did not agree with GAO regarding the need to address payment integrity risks, it stated that HHS will update its policies and procedures, including related control and monitoring activities to document the direct shipment procurement process. Domestic Medical Supply Manufacturing Before the pandemic, the U.S. generally depended on foreign suppliers for certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE), including nitrile gloves and surgical gowns. Multiple stakeholders representing manufacturers, distributors, and other purchasers noted that meaningful, transparent federal engagement with industry could enhance the resilience of domestic manufacturing and the supply chain. According to some stakeholders, such engagement with the private sector could help ramp up private investment in domestic PPE manufacturing, among other things. In January 2021, GAO reported that HHS had not developed a process for engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders and Congress for development of a supply chain strategy for pandemic preparedness, including the role of the SNS. GAO recommended that HHS do so, and the department generally agreed with GAO’s recommendation. However, as of May 2021, HHS had not implemented this recommendation. GAO continues to underscore that engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders—in meaningful, proactive ways to obtain their business and industry expertise—and with Congress is critical for developing strategies to build a sustainable domestic medical supply manufacturing base. HHS COVID-19 Funding As of May 31, 2021, Congress had appropriated to HHS approximately $484 billion in COVID-19 funds in six relief laws. The majority of HHS’s appropriations from the first five relief laws had been obligated and about half had been expended. Specifically, as of May 31, 2021, the department reported the following (see figure): Of the $324 billion appropriated in the first five COVID-19 relief laws, about $253 billion had been obligated (about 78 percent) and about $168 billion had been expended (about 52 percent). Of the $160 billion appropriated in the sixth law, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), about $75 billion had been obligated (about 47 percent) and about $3 billion had been expended (about 2 percent). HHS’s Reported COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures from COVID-19 Relief Laws, as of May 31, 2021 The percentage of obligations and expenditures varied across selected COVID-19 response activities for a variety of reasons, including the nature of the activities, their planned uses, and the timing of the funds provided through the six COVID-19 relief laws. HHS uses spend plans to communicate information about its COVID-19 spending. The first five COVID-19 relief laws generally require the department to develop, update, and provide these spend plans to Congress every 60 days. The sixth relief law, ARPA, does not require a spend plan, but according to HHS officials, the department is preparing a consolidated plan that captures the first five relief laws and a separate spend plan for funding provided through ARPA. The consolidated spend plan is under internal review at HHS and the ARPA spend plan is still being finalized. As of May 2021, GAO had received and reviewed a total of 15 spend plans—the original spend plans and subsequent updates—provided by HHS. GAO found that the most current spend plans generally do not include time frames for obligating the remaining funds, which is useful information for oversight and informing future funding decisions by Congress. Guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to federal agencies, including HHS, noted the importance of spending transparency and regular reporting to help safeguard taxpayer dollars. GAO recommends that HHS communicate information about, and facilitate oversight of, the department’s use of COVID-19 relief funds by providing projected time frames for its planned spending in the spend plans it submits to Congress. HHS partially concurred with the recommendation and stated that the department would aim to incorporate some time frames on planned spending where that information may be available such as time frames for select grants to states. Higher Education Grants The Department of Education (Education) has faced inherent challenges that increase the risk of improper payments for its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants to institutions of higher education to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19. For example, funding needed to be processed and distributed expeditiously because of health and economic threats to institutions of higher education posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO tested Education’s procedures for approving and processing HEERF grants through a sample of obligations and found that the department had not effectively designed and implemented procedures needed to identify erroneous obligations after awarding the grants. GAO estimated that for 5.5 percent of schools receiving HEERF grants (about 262 of 4,764 schools in GAO’s sample), Education awarded grants that exceeded the amounts allocated—including three instances in GAO’s sample for which Education obligated $20 million more than was allocated. Officials from Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education stated that because of time and staffing constraints and the high volume of grants administered, they did not regularly perform quality assurance reviews after obligation to identify and correct erroneous obligations. GAO recommends Education design and implement procedures for regularly conducting quality assurance reviews of obligated amounts for higher education grants, including HEERF, to help identify and correct erroneous obligations in a timely manner. Education agreed with this recommendation. Coronavirus State and Local Relief and Recovery Funds COVID-19 relief laws appropriated $500 billion to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to provide direct funding to states, localities, tribal governments, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories to help them respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. This amount includes $150 billion that the CARES Act appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) in March 2020 as well as $350 billion that ARPA appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CSLFRF) in March 2021. Recipients can use CRF payments to offset costs related to either the pandemic’s direct effects (e.g., public health needs) or its indirect effects (e.g., harm to individuals or businesses as a result of COVID-19-related closures). The CSLFRF provides payments to these recipients to cover a broader range of costs stemming from the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Single Audit Act establishes requirements for states, localities, Indian tribes, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and nonprofit organizations that receive federal awards to undergo single audits of those awards annually when their expenditures meet a certain dollar threshold. Single audits are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. Auditors who conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which provides guidelines and policy for performing single audits. After consultation with federal agencies, OMB annually updates and issues the supplement. Auditors have reported that the timing of the supplement is critical in allowing them to effectively plan their work. The timely issuance of single audit guidance is critical to ensuring timely completion and reporting of single audits to inform the federal government about actions needed to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue timely and sufficient single audit guidance for auditing recipients’ uses of payments from the CSLFRF. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, and ARPA authorized Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to issue three rounds of economic impact payments (EIP) as direct payments to help individuals alleviate financial stress due to the pandemic. (See figure.) To publicize information about how to file a tax return with the IRS to receive an EIP, IRS partners with organizations that work with communities that may not traditionally interact with IRS, such as lower-income families, senior citizens, veterans, tribal communities, and families with mixed-immigration status. According to officials from IRS partner organizations, ensuring eligible nonfilers receive their payments continues to be a challenge. Partners also told GAO their outreach efforts to nonfilers could be more effective if the partners had current data that could help identify specific communities of nonfilers who may need assistance. Total Number and Amount of Economic Impact Payments (EIP) Disbursed, Rounds 1, 2, and 3, as of May 28, 2021 In January 2021, Treasury began analyzing nearly 9 million notices it had sent to nonfilers who may be eligible for the first round of EIP payments. However, Treasury does not plan to complete this analysis until fall 2021, more than 6 months after the third round of EIP payments began to be issued. This timing would limit the findings’ usefulness for informing EIP outreach efforts. By waiting to complete the analysis, Treasury and IRS are missing an opportunity to identify communities that may have a higher number of nonfilers and to use that information to inform their outreach efforts as well as the efforts of their outreach partners.GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, release interim findings on the effectiveness of the notices it sent in September 2020 to potentially EIP-eligiblenonfilers; incorporate that analysis into IRS outreach efforts as appropriate; and then, if necessary, release an update based on new analysis after the 2021 filing season. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CARES Act and other COVID-19 relief laws included tax measures to reduce certain tax obligations, including measures related to net operating loss carryback claims. In some cases, these reductions of obligations led to cash refunds. The Internal Revenue Code and the CARES Act generally require IRS to issue certain refunds within 90 days from the date when a complete application for a tentative carryback adjustment is filed or 90 days from the last day of the month in which the return is due, whichever is later. IRS data show that the agency is not meeting the statutory refund requirement for these relief measures and that as of May 1, 2021, the average processing time for refunds was 154 days, excluding additional time for final processing and distribution. IRS officials said it is taking longer to process returns because IRS facilities that process paper returns continue to operate at reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing. In the meantime, transparent communication about these issues could help taxpayers know when to expect their refunds. Specifically, an explanation on IRS’s website that processing times for tentative refunds may exceed the expected 90 days because of service disruptions would provide taxpayers with more accurate information and expectations for receiving a refund. GAO recommends that IRS clearly communicate on its website that there are delays beyond the statutory 90-day timeline in processing tentative refunds. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. 2021 Tax Filing Season IRS is experiencing delays in processing certain returns received in 2021, resulting in extended time frames for processing returns for some taxpayers. IRS reported that it is taking longer than usual to manually review some of these returns. Specifically, as of the end of the 2021 filing season, IRS had about 25.5 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including about 1.2 million returns from its 2020 backlog, and 13.7 million returns that it had suspended because of errors. IRS staff must manually review these returns with errors. IRS typically has unprocessed returns in its inventory at the end of the filing season, but not to this extent. For example, at the end of the 2019 filing season, IRS had 8.3 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including 2.7 million returns suspended for errors. IRS’s annual tax filing activities include processing more than 150 million individual and business tax returns electronically or on paper. With significantly more returns currently being held for manual review than in prior years, more taxpayers are trying to get information about the status of their returns and refunds. However, taxpayers have had difficulty obtaining status updates on their refunds from IRS, either by phone or online. IRS’s website does not contain all of the relevant information regarding delays in processing 2021 returns and issuing taxpayers’ refunds. Additionally, IRS’s automated message on its toll-free telephone line for individual taxpayers has not been updated to explain refund delays or to include any other alerts associated with the 2021 filing season.GAO recommends that IRS update relevant pages of its website and, if feasible, add alerts to its toll-free telephone lines to more clearly and prominently explain the nature and extent of individual refund delays occurring for returns that taxpayers filed in 2021. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. This report contains additional recommendations related to disseminating information related to leave benefits for employees. Why GAO Did This Study As of mid-June 2021, the U.S. had about 33.4 million reported cases of COVID-19 and about 593,000 reported deaths, according to CDC. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions from the pandemic. Six relief laws, including the CARES Act, had been enacted as of May 31, 2021, to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of May 31, 2021, of the $4.7 trillion appropriated by these six laws for COVID-19 relief—including about $1.6 trillion appropriated by ARPA, which was enacted in March 2021—the federal government had obligated a total of $3.5 trillion and had expended $3.0 trillion, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities. GAO also interviewed federal officials; representatives from organizations for states and localities; and other stakeholders, including manufacturers of PPE (e.g., N95 respirators, surgical masks, and nitrile gloves).[Read More…]
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- Contingency Contracting: Improvements Needed in Management of Contractors Supporting Contract and Grant Administration in Iraq and AfghanistanBy Sam NewsAugust 25, 2021The Departments of Defense (DOD) and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have relied extensively on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, including using contractors to help administer other contracts or grants. Relying on contractors to perform such functions can provide benefits but also introduces potential risks, such as conflicts of interest, that should be considered and managed. Pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, GAO reviewed (1) the extent to which DOD, State, and USAID rely on contractors to perform contract and grant administration in Iraq and Afghanistan; (2) the reasons behind decisions to use such contractors and whether the decisions are guided by strategic workforce planning; and (3) whether agencies considered and mitigated related risks. GAO analyzed relevant federal and agency policies and agency contract data, and conducted file reviews and interviews for 32 contracts selected for case studies.DOD, State, and USAID'suse of contractors to help administer contracts and grants was substantial, although the agencies did not know the full extent of their use of such contractors. GAO found that the agencies had obligated nearly $1 billion through March 2009 on 223 contracts and task orders active during fiscal year 2008 or the first half of fiscal year 2009 that included the performance of administration functions for contracts and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan. The specific amount spent to help administer contracts or grants in Iraq and Afghanistan is uncertain because some contracts or task orders included multiple functions or performance in various locations and contract obligation data were not detailed enough to allow GAO to isolate the amount obligated for other functions or locations. Overall, the agencies relied on contractors to provide a wide range of services, including on-site monitoring of other contractors' activities, supporting contracting or program offices on contract-related matters, and awarding or administering grants. For example, Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment officials noted that contractors performed quality assurance for all of the center's construction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. In another example, USAID contractors awarded and administered grants on USAID's behalf to support development efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Decisions to use contractors to help administer contracts or grants are largely made by individual contracting or program offices on a case-by-case basis. In doing so, the offices generally cited the lack of sufficient government staff, the lack of in-house expertise, or frequent rotations of government personnel as key factors contributing to the need to use contractors. Offices also noted that using contractors in contingency environments can be beneficial, for example, to meet changing needs or address safety concerns regarding the use of U.S. personnel in high-threat areas. GAO has found that to mitigate risks associated with using contractors, agencies have to understand when, where, and how contractors should be used, but offices' decisions were generally not guided by agencywide workforce planning efforts. DOD, State, and USAID took actions to mitigate conflict of interest and oversight risks associated with contractors helping to administer other contracts or grants, but did not always fully address these risks. For example, agencies generally complied with requirements related to organizational conflicts of interest, but USAID did not include a contract clause required by agency policy to address potential conflicts of interest in three cases. Also, some State officials were uncertain as to whether federal ethics laws regarding personal conflicts of interest applied to certain types of contractors. In almost all cases, the agencies had designated personnel to provide contract oversight. DOD, State, and USAID contracting officials generally did not, however, ensure enhanced oversight as required for situations in which contractors provided services closely supporting inherently governmental functions despite the potential for loss of government control and accountability for mission-related policy and program decisions.[Read More…]
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