Sen. Ernst: Feds Misspent $500 Million Meant for Vaccines, Public Health Emergencies

February 5, 2021 Updated: February 7, 2021

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials spent more than $500 million that Congress set aside for developing vaccines on office moving expenses, administrative costs, news media subscriptions, lawyers, and salaries, according to a letter that was made public by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Beginning in 2009 under President Barack Obama and continuing through 2019, HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) misused funds appropriated by Congress for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) so frequently that it became known informally as the “Bank of BARDA,” according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

The BARDA funds were meant to be used “to respond to public health emergencies like outbreaks of Ebola, Zika, and—now—COVID-19,” special counsel Henry J. Kerner told President Joe Biden in a Jan. 27 letter cited by Ernst.

Allegations by a whistleblower who chose to remain anonymous prompted an investigation by the HHS inspector general’s office because the “misappropriations have been ongoing since fiscal year (Fiscal Year) 2010, and that ASPR did not accurately report this misuse of funds to Congress,” the special counsel said.

The illegal spending continued throughout the eight years of the Obama administration under then-Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius and into the administration of President Donald Trump under then-Secretary Tom Price. The IG’s investigation begun under Price’s successor, Alex Azar.

Ernst cited the special counsel’s letter to Biden in naming ASPR officials as recipients of her latest Squeal Award. The Iowa Republican regularly designates Squeal Awards to highlight wasteful spending in the government.

“As we continue to battle the greatest public health emergency in recent history, it is appalling to learn that Washington bureaucrats have spent the last decade using money intended to respond to something like COVID-19 for their own personal piggy bank—wasting your money, instead, on moving fees and salaries,” Ernst told The Epoch Times.

“This is criminal, and it’s why Congress should take action to create more transparency and accountability” in federal spending, she continued.

Ernst said she is introducing legislation in the Senate—the Federal Actors Lying Should Be Eliminated Act (FALSE)—to require termination of government workers found to have misspent tax dollars or to have knowingly entered false spending data on the website established by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA).

The FFATA was approved by Congress and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush to establish a government website that would put most federal spending within a few mouse clicks for any citizen with a computer and internet access.

The special counsel said the IG report “does not contain a single estimate for total misappropriated funds, it notes there is more work to be done, and contains evidence that—as recently as FY 2019—approximately $25 million to $26 million was ‘taken from the BARDA ARD funding stream and [improperly] provided to ASPR.’

The IG’s “investigation of ASPR’s reporting to Congress from FY 2007 to FY 2016 also found that those reports ‘did not adequately display [$517.8 million in] administrative expenditures” and that “ASPR is unable to demonstrate that the BARDA funds were used for their appropriated purposes.”

Spending tax dollars intended by Congress for one purpose on anything other than that purpose violates the Anti-Deficiency Act, among other federal laws, and is considered one of the most serious crimes a civil servant can commit.

“Federal employees who violate the Anti-deficiency Act are subject to two types of sanctions: administrative and penal,” according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

“Employees may be subject to appropriate administrative discipline including, when circumstances warrant, suspension from duty without pay or removal from office. In addition, employees may also be subject to fines, imprisonment, or both,” GAO said.

The Ernst proposal would make termination mandatory for any civil servant convicted of violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, rather than allowing the option of a lesser administrative penalty such as a suspension without pay for a specified period of time.

Examples of previous Squeal Awards by Ernst have included:

  • Exposing a special tax loophole that allows holders of bonds issued by China on funds loaned to the U.S. government to avoid paying taxes on the interest earned.
  • Calling for ending more than $1.6 billion in annual spending by federal workers on “SWAG,” promotional items like branded hats and other apparel, coffee cups and mascots.
  • Stopping the payment by federal departments and agencies of “bogus bonuses” to contractors as an unofficial way of increasing their compensation for services performed.
  • Requiring full public disclosure of huge government spending projects when they are behind schedule and over budget.
  • Permanently banning earmarks—special often-anonymous spending provisions benefitting a congressman’s family, friends, or campaign donors. Earmarks have been temporarily suspended since 2010 under current Senate rules.

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