A Look Inside the Team that Safeguards Trillions in COVID Relief Spending

SIGPR logo on side of whistle

When the U.S. Congress spent trillions of dollars on COVID-19 relief, it allocated $25 million to ensure that money was spent as intended. And the resulting small cadre of former U.S. attorneys, financial auditors, Secret Service investigators, and data analytics experts include a healthy knowledge of social and behavioral science in their anti-fraud toolkit. “I’d describe our relationship as symbiotic with social sciences because we rely on social sciences quite a bit, and we hope to contribute to social sciences. We see their value and want to contribute,” says Brian D. Miller, director of the United States Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR).

In the wake March 2020, Congress passed the multi-trillion dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act to provide economic assistance to individuals, small businesses, and industries. The legislation included a provision to create a special inspector general to oversee this huge flow of relief money. This special office within the Treasury Department was modeled on the creation of the Special Inspector General for the Targeted Asset Relief Program from the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

The focus of these special inspector general offices is to not only keep a watchful eye on the trillions of dollars flowing from Washington to families and business across the country, but to also prevent and deter people defrauding the federal government and thus the tax-paying American public. Much research has been done on the effectiveness of deterring white-collar crime in the first place. A 2020 study by Paul Mason of Baylor University and Brian Williams of Indiana University in the Journal of Accounting, Auditing & Finance, for example, confirmed that the Internal Revenue Service’s proactive monitoring does deter some accounting fraud.

Brian Miller, left, and Jean Saint-Elin

We spoke with Miller and Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Auditing Jean Saint-Elin, about the nexus of government oversight, deterring white-collar crime, and the social sciences during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. (A second post offers their thoughts on the importance of the social sciences in government oversight.)

Data analytics plays a central role in their work to making cases and deter future ones. Under the direction of the Office of Audits, which includes Saint-Elin, SIGPR has compiled and analyzed nearly 72 million rows of data, covering hundreds billions of dollars in CARES Act funding.

Saint-Elin, a former senior forensic auditor at the State Department, sums up the investigative mindset the office: “My job is to unpeel these layers and to be able to identify these individuals when they are committing fraud.” He goes on to say, “Data analytics is a crucial thing we do. You see how even data analytics are taking part in even football. This is a wave of the future. Everything is data analytics these days and I think rightly so.”

Miller was appointed by President Trump and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 2, 2020. He brings a wealth of experience to the position after serving as senior associate White House counsel, Inspector General of the United States General Services Administration, and assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The first SIGPR report to Congress was due only 60 days after Senate confirmation. He approaches his work from the perspective of keeping their heads down and focusing on the cases. “If there’s a big deal that happens as a result, so be it. I think that’s true throughout the organization.”

As of December 31, SIGPR had 52 full-time employees on board. For comparison, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General has roughly 1,600 nonpolitical staffers. In the fourth quarter of 2021, SIGPR managed 23 full investigations and four preliminary inquiries and received and vetted 202 hotline complaints.

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Maxine Terry

Maxine Terry is a corporate communications specialist with SAGE Publishing. She previously covered judiciary and housing policy as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

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