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The Paper Trail: September 15, 2023

Delivered Tuesdays and Fridays, The Paper Trail is a curated collection of the government news you need to know. Sign up to get this newsletter delivered to your inbox.


Announcements

The House Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds will have a pop-up tabling event in the Rayburn Cafeteria, Thursday, September 21 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. House staff can stop by to learn more about the Office and pick up copies of their latest resources. For more information, please contact Charmise Jackson at [email protected].

Working with Whistleblowers on Oversight and Investigations: POGO’s virtual training on how to work safely and effectively with whistleblowers will be Friday, September 22 at 12 noon. This event is only open to staff in Congress, GAO, and CRS. Register HERE.

Top stories for September 15, 2023

Social Security overpays billions to people, many on disability. Then it demands the money back: The Social Security Administration reclaims billions of dollars of overpayments from many of the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable. The result is a costly collection effort for the government and a devastating ordeal for beneficiaries and their families. (David Hilzenrath and Jodie Fleischer, KFF Health News)

Senate launches inquiry into Coast Guard sexual assault coverups exposed by CNN report: The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations launched a bipartisan investigation into the Coast Guard’s handling of a secret, yearslong investigation that found rapes, sexual assaults, and other serious misconduct at the agency’s academy had been ignored and covered up by high-ranking officials. (Melanie Hicken and Pamela Brown, CNN)

A Trump appointee is trying to gut the FEC’s ability to investigate campaign finance crimes: FEC Commissioner Allen Dickerson is pushing a rule change that would encumber the agency’s ability to investigate campaign finance violations by requiring the FEC’s Office of General Counsel to get approval from the commissioners for any investigative activity, no matter how big or small. (Prem Thakker, The Intercept)

Civil rights, abortion groups urge U.S. judiciary to end “judge shopping”: The federal judiciary is facing new calls from civil rights, abortion, and immigration advocates to end the practice of “judge shopping” by state attorneys general and activists who sue over federal government policies in courthouses where a single judge seen as likely sympathetic to their cases is almost guaranteed to hear their cases. (Nate Raymond, Reuters)

White House chief of staff’s wealth and connections collide with Biden’s clean energy strategy: White House chief of staff Jeffrey Zients’ financial holdings and connections are part of a worrying trend in who inevitably rises to power overseeing the federal government. (Daniel Boguslaw, The Intercept)

USPS rejects regulator’s budget request, leaving watchdog to fear for its independence: Leadership at the U.S. Postal Service rejected its oversight office’s budget request, instead granting it a funding boost that will provide a 10% cut to its initial ask. (Eric Katz, Government Executive)

FLRA’s contract management system lacked documents, OIG says: The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees labor issues within the federal government, has been operating a contract file management system with incomplete records and was not compliant with federal regulations. (Carten Cordell, Government Executive)

Insurrection

Election officials reject calls to unilaterally block Trump from ballot using 14th Amendment but will defer to courts: Election officials in Michigan, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Minnesota are rejecting calls to remove Donald Trump from the 2024 ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, saying courts should decide. (Marshall Cohen, CNN)

Court blocks Jack Smith’s access to many of Rep. Scott Perry’s contacts about 2020 election: A federal appeals court concluded that prosecutors’ effort to access the cellphone communications of Rep. Scott Perry with colleagues and executive branch officials violated his immunity under the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause. It’s the first time an appeals court has held that lawmakers’ cellphones are subject to the same protections as their physical offices, and it’s the first big setback in the special counsel’s bid to obtain evidence about involvement by Trump’s allies in the effort to subvert the election. (Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein, Politico)

Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell escaped Georgia indictment — and still leads election denial movement: Mitchell played a central role in the effort to stop the certification of the 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere, yet Fulton County DA Fani Willis declined to charge her. Mitchell remains one of the most influential people in the movement that’s now working to shape the rules and practices in the 2024 election and beyond. (Andrew Donohue, The Intercept)

Jan. 6 shattered her family. Now they’re trying to forgive: Roughly 15% of the more than 1,100 people charged in the insurrection were turned in by family members, friends, or acquaintances. (Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Washington Post)

Russia-Ukraine War

Warren, Shaheen and Duckworth want to know if Musk limited Ukraine’s Starlink access at a crucial point in war with Russia: The senators are seeking answers from the Defense secretary about whether Elon Musk or other commercial satellite providers disabled or restricted the Ukrainian military’s access to communication networks and what the Pentagon plans to do to “prevent further dangerous meddling.” (Courtney Kube, NBC News)

COVID-19

Pandemic fraud may have robbed unemployment insurance of $135 billion: According to the GAO, as much as 15% of the $900 billion in unemployment benefits paid during the pandemic was likely illegally obtained. (Madeleine Ngo, New York Times)

IRS halts processing claims for pandemic tax credit tied to fraud: The IRS will stop processing new claims for the Employee Retention Credit, ending a tax-relief program that was meant to prevent layoffs in the early months of the pandemic but became a hotbed of fraud. (Julie Zauzmer Weil, Washington Post)

Poverty rate jumps in 2022 after end of enhanced child tax credit: The share of Americans, particularly children, in poverty rose significantly last year, in large part because Congress did not renew a pandemic enhancement to the child tax credit. (Tami Luhby, CNN)

Alito pauses order banning Biden officials from contacting tech platforms: The order temporarily pauses a lower-court injunction limiting the government’s ability to contact social media firms about online posts that pose a danger to public health or safety, such as COVID vaccine misinformation. (Josh Gerstein and Rebecca Kern, Politico)

Defense and Veterans Affairs

“It will take years to recover” from Tuberville blockade, top Navy nominee says: Adm. Lisa Franchetti underscored the uncertainty Sen. Tuberville’s blockade has created for Navy families, who face delayed moves, issues with school enrollments, and other problems. Democrats estimate that nearly 90% of general and flag officers will be impacted by the hold. (Connor O’Brien, Politico)

DOD lag on enacting business system recommendations may slow clean audit, GAO says: The Defense Department has yet to fully implement 18 recommendations that could facilitate the decades-long pursuit of completing a clean audit. (Carten Cordell, Government Executive)

Pentagon-funded study warns dementia among U.S. officials poses national security threat: The study comes as Sens. Mitch McConnell and Dianne Feinstein, who have access to top-secret information, recently had public health episodes that stoked calls for resignations and debate about Washington’s aging leadership. (Ken Klippenstein, The Intercept)

Military secrets leaked on “War Thunder” forums yet again: A “War Thunder” player recently posted images from the F-117 Nighthawk’s flight manual on a forum that players frequent, marking the 12th time that classified or sensitive information has been shared in the video game’s community. (Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose)

First, the loss of a baby, then the loss of legal rights: Just 17 out of 502 medical malpractice claims filed with the military have yielded financial settlements. The claims in the 17 settlements sought a total of $3.77 billion in damages, but only $4 million was paid out. (Ian Shapira, Washington Post)

Afghanistan

The Biden administration is keeping thousands of Afghans in limbo abroad: Thousands of Afghans who fled their homes two years ago are stuck at processing sites in the Middle East and the Balkans that are under the control of the U.S. government, yet the Biden administration refuses to disclose basic information about their status. (Alice Speri, The Intercept)

Tech

DHS unveils new guidelines on AI use: DHS will not collect or disseminate data used in artificial intelligence activities and will ensure all facial recognition technologies will be thoroughly tested under new guidelines issued this week. (Rebecca Klar, The Hill)

🔎 See Also:Tech leaders including Musk, Zuckerberg call for government action on AI (Cat Zakrzewski, Cristiano Lima, and David DiMolfetta, Washington Post)

Health Care

A decongestant in cold medicines doesn’t work at all, an FDA panel says: An FDA advisory panel agreed unanimously on Tuesday that a common decongestant ingredient used in many over-the-counter cold medicines is ineffective. If the FDA orders its removal (which might not happen for several months), numerous popular products — including Tylenol, Mucinex, NyQuil, and Benadryl — might become unavailable. (Christina Jewett and Roni Caryn Rabin, New York Times)

Overdose deaths continue to rise in the U.S., reaching another record level, provisional data shows: While national trends show relatively small increases, parts of the country — especially the West — continue to see major surges in overdose deaths. (Deidre McPhillips, CNN)

🔎 See Also:Fentanyl-laced overdose deaths in U.S. have risen 50-fold since 2010, study finds (Sara Moniuszko, CBS News)

ICYMI

Immigration and Border Security:

Federal judge again rules DACA is illegal

Mexican drug cartels pay Americans to smuggle weapons out of U.S.

Other News:

Hunter Biden indicted by special counsel on felony gun charges

FEC tosses complaint claiming Rep. Matt Gaetz used campaign funds for trafficking probe defense

As president, Biden sees broader war powers than he did as senator

DHS warns in annual report of ongoing threat posed by domestic and foreign terrorists

U.S. school shootings reach new high, doubled in past year

Because It’s Friday

No evidence that UFOs have extraterrestrial origins, NASA finds: The world’s premier space agency is the latest government agency to devote significant time and attention to a question that has largely been the domain of hobbyists, amateur researchers, and conspiracy theorists. (Shane Harris, Washington Post)

Upcoming Events

📌 Webinar: Dollars and Demographics - How Census Data Shapes Federal Funding Distribution. Project On Government Oversight / Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Tuesday, September 26, 2 p.m.

Hot Docs

🔥📃 GAO - DOD Financial Management: Improving Systems Planning and Oversight Could Improve Auditability. GAO-23-106817(PDF)

🔥📃 GAO - Facial Recognition Services: Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Should Take Actions to Implement Training, and Policies for Civil Liberties. GAO-23-105607(PDF)

🔥📃 GAO - Biometric Identity System: DHS Needs to Address Significant Shortcomings in Program Management and Privacy. GAO-23-105959(PDF)

🔥📃 GAO - Unemployment Insurance: Estimated Amount of Fraud During Pandemic Likely Between $100 Billion and $135 Billion. GAO-23-106696(PDF)

🔥📃 GAO - Violent Extremism: Agencies' and Financial Institutions' Efforts to Link Financing to Domestic Threats. GAO-23-105928(PDF)