June 15, 2020

Warren, Blumenthal, Coons, Jayapal, Sarbanes Officially Introduce the CORE Act

Support for the legislation gains momentum with 57 organizations endorsing, 26 Members of Congress Joining as Co-Sponsors

Bill Text (PDF) | Two-Pager (PDF)

Read Letter of Support from 50+ Organizations Led by Public Citizen (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), and Co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and the Chair of the House Democracy Reform Task Force Representative John Sarbanes (D-Md.) officially introduced the Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics (CORE) Act (S. 3855), legislation that would ensure stronger oversight, accountability, and transparency in the federal government's response to the COVID-19 crisis. Since unveiling draft legislation on May 12, 2020, wide support has grown for Congress to pass the CORE Act which now has endorsements from 57 organizations, 8 Senate original co-sponsors and 18 House co-sponsors. The provisions must be core to any relief bill to ensure taxpayer dollars do not serve the interests of the wealthy or well-connected to the exclusion of the American people.  

"The CORE Act would empower independent oversight, protect whistleblowers, and stop government-sanctioned corruption and profiteering to ensure the health and safety of Americans come first," said Senator Warren. "Congress must pass our bill in the next relief package to hold the Trump administration  accountable as they hand out trillions of dollars in response to the COVID-19 crisis."

"President Trump's war on independent oversight and his purging of the ranks of Inspectors General is a crisis - a pernicious and ongoing attack on the building blocks of our democracy. Just days ago, Secretary Mnuchin called the recipients of taxpayer COVID-19 relief 'proprietary information' while refusing to disclose which giant corporations and Trump donors had accessed money meant for small businesses. Strong oversight isn't about political punishment, it's about making sure that the people who really need relief are the ones who receive it. Real accountability demands a watchdog, not a lapdog, to stop the waste, fraud and favoritism pervading this Administration," said Senator Blumenthal. 

"Every single penny of taxpayer money allocated by Congress for COVID-19 relief should go to families, communities and businesses in need, period," said Senator Coons. "We have to ensure that aid is going to workers and businesses who need it most, not just the businesses with the most political connections. This important legislation will ensure that inspectors general can do their jobs and provide real accountability for the trillions in taxpayer dollars we're investing to keep our economy afloat."

"As families and small businesses struggle to stay afloat during a historic mass unemployment crisis that has seen more than 40 million workers file for unemployment, President Trump and his administration have continued to do what they do best-spread corruption, enrich giant corporations, muzzle the truth and reward their megadonor allies," said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. "I'm proud that our CORE Act boldly responds to this corrupt behavior by ensuring the public knows which businesses are getting COVID-19 relief, shining a light on big-money corporate lobbying for these funds and allowing whistleblowers who see illegal, dangerous or wasteful behavior by corporations and the government to speak out without fear."

"COVID-19 relief must go to those who need it most. American families, small businesses, health care providers and state and local governments are hurting and we must do all we can to block special interests and corporate insiders from gaming the system," said Congressman Sarbanes. "The CORE Act will establish robust oversight and anti-corruption standards to prevent just that and ensure the Trump Administration does not waste taxpayer dollars with giveaways to their wealthy and well-connected political donors."

Joining the CORE Act as original cosponsors in the Senate are Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). 

"As our country continues to address the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that federal assistance is used for its intended purpose rather than line the pockets of corporate executives. Those who come forward to report misuse of funds or wrongdoing must be protected from retaliation or punishment. I am proud to lend my whistleblower protections to this broad package of reforms. Now more than ever, we must maintain the American people's faith that taxpayer dollars are not abused. This legislation will allow us to do that," said Senator Harris. 

Joining the bill as co-sponsors in the House of Representatives are Representatives Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.), Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Susan Wild (D-Pa.), Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Josh Harder (D-Calif.), Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), Kim Schrier, M.D. (D-Wash.), and Kathy Castor (D-Fla.). 

The CORE Act would:

  • Prohibit Conflicts of Interest: The bill addresses and eliminates conflicts in the selection or hiring of contractors or advisors and the distribution of relief grants and loans, similar to the conflicts provisions in the 2008 TARP bailout. The bill further requires Federal ethics officials to impose revolving door restrictions on officials involved in the administration of relief; requires White House task force members who work on pandemic response to file public reports detailing their financial interests; and expands the scope of CARES Act conflict of interest prohibitions on bailout assistance going to certain companies affiliated with senior government officials to include small business aid and additional senior officials. The bill provides an additional $25 million to the Office of Government Ethics to administer these rules.
  • Empowers & Protects Inspectors General: The bill requires that inspectors general (IGs) can only be fired for good cause and requires the President to inform Congress when any IG, including an acting IG, is removed from their post. The bill further requires that IG vacancies be filled automatically by the first assistant to the last IG, and that acting IGs enjoy civil service protections, ensuring that they have some recourse if they face retaliation. Any member of the staff of an unlawfully fired IG would be allowed to file suit to challenge the firing, as would any member of the public harmed as the result of such action. The President's decision to fire or otherwise discipline an IG or acting IG would trigger an automatic, public review by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Integrity. 
  • Strengthen the Congressional Oversight Commission: The bill grants the Congressional Oversight Commission, which was established in the CARES Act, with subpoena authority for testimony and documents and expands its jurisdiction to include all COVID-19 relief funding, including the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program.
  • Strengthen CARES Act Executive Branch Accountability & Oversight Entities: The bill requires the Treasury Secretary to submit a weekly list of any instances in which the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Relief (SIGPR) or the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee (PRAC)-both established in the CARES Act-believe the executive branch has unreasonably denied them information in the course of their oversight. If the Treasury Secretary omits or misrepresents instances of wrongdoing to Congress, he would be liable for perjury. If the Treasury Secretary fails to provide a required filing, the bill prevents the Secretary and any other senior political appointee in the Treasury Department from being paid.
  • Protect Whistleblowers: The bill establishes strong whistleblower protections for private sector workers (including essential workers) and government contractors who may witness waste, fraud, or abuse or be victims of misconduct related to Coronavirus relief. These provisions, modeled after the whistleblower protections Congress included in the 2009 Recovery Act, would protect Americans who call out wrongdoing, protect against all retaliation, and establish a safe, secure, and anonymous process for whistleblowers' claims to be investigated by OSHA. The bill also establishes a direct channel for whistleblowers to submit complaints directly to the SIGPR, PRAC, and the Congressional Oversight Commission. The provision to protect whistleblowers was drafted with Senator Harris.
  • Restrict and Disclose Lobbying & Political Spending: The bill requires lobbyists to make monthly disclosures regarding all lobbying related to COVID-19 relief spending or lending. The bill also codifies the Obama Administration's restrictions on Recovery Act lobbying activity, which would restrict all COVID-19 relief lobbying activity to public, written submissions and prohibit closed door meetings and phone calls between government officials and companies seeking relief. Monthly disclosures would include any documents provided by those companies to government officials, including White House staff. Additionally, any company that receives bailout money would be prohibited from engaging in political spending or lobbying expenditures for a least a year after any loan is fully repaid. Finally, the bill bolsters the ability of the Justice Department to enforce lobbying requirements under this section.
  • Improve Transparency & Disclosure for Bailout Funds: The bill dramatically improves transparency about where bailout funds are going. It requires recipients of bailout funds, including contractors and grantees, to provide regular, public reporting about how that money is being used. The bill codifies the Federal Reserve Board's announcement that it will disclose the names and amounts borrowed for each participant in their lending facilities backstopped with CARES Act money and requires recipients to provide a detailed description of how the assistance was used. The bill requires recipients to disclose compensation and workforce data, including the mean, median, and minimum wages of all non-executive employees; the number of workers before and after the receipt of assistance; and the salaries of executives, including bonuses and capital distributions. The bill further requires giant corporations that receive a bailout to disclose whether they have been charged with violations of federal law and the nature of those alleged violations. It also ensures the Paycheck Protection Program actually helps small businesses rather than giant or well-connected companies by requiring the Small Business Administration to publicly disclose on its website, on a weekly basis, basic information about lenders and recipients, including loan amounts. Finally, the bill automatically discloses the text of lucrative contracts held by companies involved in the administration of relief.
  • Strengthen Enforcement: The bill allows any individual harmed by a company's misuse of bailout funds to seek recourse through the courts to ensure that harmed parties, like workers fired after a company committed to not fire anyone after receiving bailout funds, have the ability to bring private lawsuits and seek damages against bailout recipients who do not adhere to bailout terms. The bill also hold senior executives of companies that violate bailout terms personally liable to taxpayers, including by having their executive compensation seized.

CORE Act endorsements include Accountable.US; African American Ministers in Action; American Family Voices; Americans for Financial Reform; Campaign for Accountability; Center for Biological Diversity; Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); Clean Elections Texas; Coalition to Preserve, Protect & Defend; Common Cause; Daily Kos; DemCast USA; Democracy Initiative; Democracy 21; Earthworks; Ambassador (ret.) Norman Eisen, White House Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform. 2009-11; End Citizens United/ Let America Vote Action Fund; Equal Justice Society; Financial Accountability and Corporate; Transparency Coalition (FACT); Fix Democracy First; Free Speech for People; Global Witness Government Accountability Project; Government Information Watch; Greenpeace USA; Indivisible; International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR); League of Women Voters of the United States; Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN); Main Street Alliance; Mainers for Accountable Leadership; Mount Zion Community Outreach; MoveOn.org; National Association of Social Workers; NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics; Oil Change International; Open the Government; Oxfam America; Norman J. Ornstein; Richard W. Painter; Patriotic Millionaires; Peace Action; People for the American Way; Progressive Democrats of America; Project on Government Oversight (POGO); Public Citizen; Publish What You Pay-US; Sierra Club; SMART Elections; Stand Up America; Transparency International U.S. Office; James A. Thurber; Union of Concerned Scientists; Voices for Progress; 20/20 Vision; and 350 Humboldt.

"The CORE Act offers commonsense oversight and transparency measures solely dedicated to

ensuring that our taxpayer dollars are being awarded to those in need and spent according to the

intent of the law," the 57 organizations wrote in their letter of support. "Experience has taught us that corruption and waste can diminish the impact and cost-effectiveness of emergency spending programs by the government. Experience has also taught us that oversight measures like those contained in the CORE Act can prevent that corruption and waste."

"The gravity of our current crisis demands a responsible allocation of bailout funds. The process must be free from conflicts that favor special interests, and that requires robust oversight. CARES Act implementation to-date has been fraught, with loopholes that have allowed large companies to get cash meant for smaller businesses. We must course-correct, and ensure that taxpayer dollars help the public, workers, and protect our health. Public Citizen strongly supports the reforms proposed by Senators Warren and Blumenthal and Representatives Jayapal and Sarbanes for the next relief package to make sure that this happens," said Lisa Gilbert, Vice President of Legislative Affairs for Public Citizen.

"Senators Warren and Blumenthal and Representatives Jayapal and Sarbanes have outlined a set of proposals that would address many long standing issues affecting oversight and would drastically improve accountability and transparency around the federal government's actions in response to COVID-19. We urge Congress to take these issues up quickly," said Liz Hempowicz, POGO's Director of Public Policy.

"The funds provided in the CARES Act are critical to an effective pandemic response, which can mean the difference between life and death, but with such massive amounts of money involved, they will be a natural target for fraud and influence. So ensuring these funds go where Congress intended is equally critical.  All members of Congress should want immediate and thorough oversight into whether taxpayer funds are being spent fairly and without fraud or influence; these provisions would be a crucial step toward that needed oversight," said Noah Bookbinder, Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).