WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congressman Ed Case chooses his words carefully when describing the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
While he’s frustrated with the increased number of COVID-19 cases on the islands and the devastation the virus has caused to the local economy, he doesn’t want to pile on public officials, such as Gov. David Ige or outgoing state Health Director Bruce Anderson, who have both been blamed for their lackadaisical approach to the crisis.
Case, who said he’s in direct contact with Ige and other leaders in state and county government, prefers to keep any criticism he may have private.
“From my perspective, it is about what is the best way to get the job done,” Case said. “I don’t think that the best way to get the job done is for everybody to be yelling and screaming at each other.”
Yes, mistakes have been made, Case said, and maybe the money coming from the federal government hasn’t been spent fast enough, but given the circumstances he’d prefer to cut some slack to those decision makers who are on the front lines. They’re facing real dilemmas, he said, including trying to find the right balance between public health and safety and the need to restart the economy.
“It’s hard to get it right all the time every single day,” Case said. “I think that any leader at any level of government anywhere in the country has had a very difficult six months with COVID-19 because it’s a completely unknown and unpredictable virus.”
Case has taken a different approach than some of his colleagues, namely U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, both of whom have spoken out forcefully about the Ige administration’s reaction to the outbreak.
“It’s clear that in some circumstances you do have to replace people, and if I was in state or county government leadership I probably would have replaced people as well.” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case
Schatz recently spoke up in an interview with Civil Beat about the state Health Department’s reticence early on to implement mandatory mask wearing and robust community testing and contact tracing.
Gabbard shared similar concerns and was the first member of Hawaii’s four-person federal delegation to call for more accountability. In particular, she said Ige needed to fire his two top health officials, Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park, or resign himself so that Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room physician, could take over.
Both Schatz and Gabbard have publicly called on the administration to account for $50 million in federal funds that were dedicated to increasing testing on the islands and hiring more contact tracers to help track and contain the virus as it spread through the community.
California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who chairs the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has also asked the Ige administration to explain where the money went and detail how the state came to boast one of the highest infection rates in the country after once being considered a model for others to emulate.
Case said he has no problem with Schatz or Gabbard publicly criticizing the Ige administration or Eshoo conducting congressional oversight of federal spending. In fact, he said he shares many of their same concerns, but that he prefers to work behind the scenes when pushing for change. Even when he sees someone making decisions that might warrant a shake-up in leadership, Case said he’s not one to “call for their heads.”
“It’s clear that in some circumstances you do have to replace people, and if I was in state or county government leadership I probably would have replaced people as well,” Case said.
“But I don’t want to toss every single state and county government leader in the middle of a crisis when it’s a very, very difficult job. What we want them to do is take the best possible action to help everybody, and I think the way to do that is to muster the resources and try to work within the broader team to get that job done.”
Questions have been raised about whether state and county officials will be able to spend federal coronavirus relief aid fast enough to meet a December deadline. Case said he’s not as worried as others about the ability of governments to allocate those funds.
He is concerned, however, about where that money is going, which is why he says his office is doing its best to keep tabs on the more than $9 billion that has come into the state so far through various programs including direct payments to individuals, unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection Program that provided more than $500 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses across the U.S.
Congressional investigators this week released a report that found that more than $1 billion went to borrowers who received multiple PPP loans in violation of program rules. Hundreds of companies that are barred from doing business with the federal government also received tens of millions of dollars through the program despite being ineligible.
While numerous people have been charged with federal crimes for defrauding the government — including a Florida man who used the loan money to buy a Lamborghini — Case said he’s unaware of any major instances of PPP fraud in the islands.
He’s more concerned, he said, about false claims made for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA benefits, that were extended to gig workers and independent contractors as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported that it receives hundreds of fraudulent claims weekly. Through Sept. 1 the agency estimates that it has paid out up to $46.5 million in fraudulent claims while preventing $616 million in fraudulent benefits.
“Any time you throw $3 trillion dollars at a national crisis in a period of six weeks, including programs that have never existed before and you ask everybody to spend this money as fast as possible, there’s an incredible risk of accelerated fraud,” Case said. “This is a breeding ground for fraud so you’ve got to be vigilant and Congress absolutely has to exercise its oversight functions across the country in order to try to mitigate that.”
He added that President Donald Trump has only made that job more difficult with his sustained attacks on inspectors general, several of whom he has removed or fired. “Those are the folks inside the departments inside the administration who are supposed to be watching the henhouse, and he’s taken them out,” Case said.
Negotiations on a new stimulus deal collapsed over the summer after Republicans balked at a $3 trillion proposal put forth by House Democrats that would have included a new round of direct payments, extended unemployment benefits and provided $200 billion in hazard pay to essential workers, such as package carriers and grocery store clerks.
Talks have once again resumed, but it’s not at all clear when a deal might be struck, especially as the political rhetoric ramps up in advance of the Nov. 3 election. Case said the failure of Washington to act is emblematic of the federal government’s dysfunction in the face of a crisis. He now worries that the election will only make matters all the more intractable.
“It’s very dangerous to get into a posture in which compromise is viewed as failure,” he said. “The tragedy here is that we’ve allowed this next critically needed emergency assistance package to get into that posture, and so it’s much harder to find your way out.”
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