On this inaugural episode of the Line of Defense: A Womble Bond Dickinson White-Collar Defense, Investigations, and Regulatory Enforcement Podcast, Womble Bond Dickinson attorneys Luke Cass and Britt Biles spoke with US Special Inspector General for the Pandemic Recovery Brian Miller about the work his office is doing to oversee COVID-19 economic relief funds. Special Inspector General Miller spoke more broadly about the role of inspectors general, their authorities, and their investigative methods. He also shared some best practices for mitigating legal risks when participating in federal programs or doing business with the federal government.
Biles: What is the role of the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery?
Miller noted that a Special Inspector General plays a different role than a traditional federal Inspector General. Every federal agency has an Inspector General to root out fraud, waste and abuse across all areas touched by their agency. But Special Inspectors General focus on a particular area—in Miller’s case, pandemic relief efforts.
“Our special agents have law enforcement authority. They have guns and badges and can make arrests. They can do everything a law enforcement agent can do,” Miller said. But their jurisdiction is limited to CARES Act crimes. By contrast, the FBI has general criminal jurisdiction and can investigate any federal crime.
“The other thing about a Special Inspector General is that we are parachuted into an agency. You don’t have original jurisdiction, so you share jurisdiction,” he said.
This means his office must coordinate their efforts with the relevant agency’s Inspectors General. Miller is a member of, and works closely with, the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee, an oversight body composed of Inspectors General from various federal agencies.
Biles: “What is the role of Inspectors General with regard to private entities or individuals? When might a private entity or individual—as opposed to a federal agency or employee—become involved in an inspector general investigation or audit?”
Miller said that if a company receives loan or participates in a federal COVID-19 relief program, his office has jurisdiction to investigate and audit how that money is being used. Generally, private individuals can be involved in this as a target, a witness, or in any number of ways.
He noted that his office as broad subpoena authority. Under the CARES Act, SIGPR has the same duties, powers and responsibilities as any other Inspector General.
Miller also said that the Treasury Department includes in contracts that when a company accepts COVID-19 relief money, it agrees to make its records available to SIGPR and other Inspectors General.
Cass: “How are you working with other federal agencies to investigate fraud, waste, and abuse in the COVID-19 relief programs?”
In addition to working with the aforementioned Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee, Miller noted that his team has good relationship with a number of US Attorneys’ offices. He said he brought in a number of veteran federal prosecutors and experienced special agents who are used to working collaboratively within a cross-agency framework.
“We bring a lot of experience and expertise to the table—and we don’t just leave it there. We follow the case all the way to the end,” he said.
Biles: “Many federal agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, talk about the role of big data and the importance of data analytics to their investigations. How does your office use data analytics in its investigations and audits?”
“We do a lot of banking data analytics to look for red flags,” Miller said. “We get banking information and look for anomalies. That’s only the first layer, though. Just because something looks different doesn’t mean fraud is there.”
Miller said that type of proactive investigation is necessary to combat fraud. He said his office can’t sit around and wait on leads, or for Inspectors General at agencies to reach out to his team.
“Most of our cases are cases we have generated,” he said.
Also, his office shares leads they develop with Inspectors General and investigators at federal agencies. He said the SIGPR office works closely with the FBI and IRS to develop cases and bring them to indictment.
"We bring a lot of experience and expertise to the table—and we don’t just leave it there. We follow the case all the way to the end."
Cass: “How should people react if they are approached by agents?”
“Not everybody is a target – some people just have information,” Miller said. “My advice would be to cooperate with our special agents up front, but seek legal counsel when you have questions.” However, his office has subpoenaed to uncooperative witnesses and will do so if necessary, he said.
Biles: “Are there circumstances where private entities have a reporting obligation to SIGPR?”
Miller said, “We would expect any partner with the federal government (a contractor for example) to not let their business partner be defrauded.”
But in some situations, contractors and other business partners are required to open their books to Inspectors General. This is true even outside of pandemic relief programs.
Biles: What is your role with the False Claims Act as Special Inspector General?
Miller said his office can and will pursue FCA violations where someone intentionally defrauds federal government on COVID-19 relief efforts. Such cases may be uncovered by OIG investigation, or by “Lincoln Law” whistleblower actions by private citizens. The government can recover treble damages plus civil penalties for each false claim – so FCA prosecutions can be highly punitive to lawbreakers.
Biles: “What are best practices for companies doing business with the federal government to mitigate risks?”
“There are a number of ways you can get into trouble with the federal government,” Miller said. But there are a few basic good practices:
- Keep good records, especially about how money is spent.
- Don’t “multiple dip” by applying for multiple relief funds for the same purpose.
- Pay close attention to the terms and conditions of federal programs, as each program and agency has its specific requirements for how money may be used.
- Consult with legal counsel knowledgeable about how federal programs work.
Biles: What do you want SIGPR’s legacy to be?
Miller: “We were an organization that started up very quickly…that did quality work. We were able to investigate fraud and we put together cases that can be proved in federal court.”