weather icon Partly Cloudy
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

EDITORIAL: Who is accountable for billions in taxpayer losses?

The federal government spent trillions of dollars in an effort to blunt the devastation of the pandemic. A significant portion of that money went to fraudsters and charlatans.

Will any public officials be held accountable? If you believe so, we’ve got a beachfront mansion in Gabbs for sale.

On Thursday, the director of Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, which handles jobless claims, told lawmakers that the office had paid out an estimated $1.4 billion in faulty claims during the pandemic. That’s about 10 percent of the total unemployment checks the state handed out during COVID, when Nevada’s unemployment rate soared to more than 30 percent.

About half of the $1.4 billion, Christopher Sewell told a legislative committee, was lost to fraud while the rest stemmed from overpayments of legitimate claims. Mr. Sewell admitted that some of those excessive checks were the result of agency error, The Nevada Independent reports.

To be fair, jobless officials faced an unprecedented situation when then-Gov. Steve Sisolak shut down the state three years ago. But even allowing for the crush of claims, the agency failed miserably. Some Nevadans had to wait more than a year before receiving benefits. The department’s customer service was a disaster, to say the least, as claimants became irate at website issues and endless busy signals.

As of last August, DETR still had a backlog of 24,000 cases. The agency has gone through four different department heads in less than three years. Let’s hope Mr. Sewell is able to clean up the mess he inherited.

Nevada isn’t alone, of course. An analysis last October put California on the hook for paying $32.6 billion in fraudulent jobless claims. One frustrated lawmaker called the Golden State’s Employment Development Division “one of the worst in the United States” and said that the agency “has got to step up and start telling the truth, even if it gets uglier and uglier.”

Nationally, NBC News reported last year that unemployment fraud was nearing $100 billion, while criminals looted another pandemic relief fund — the Paycheck Protection Program — for as much as $80 billion. Those numbers are almost certainly on the low end. One former U.S. attorney called it “the biggest fraud in a generation.”

It’s true that Nevada unemployment officials were in a difficult position, trying to get checks where they were needed in a timely fashion while faced with verifying a record number of claims. But that excuse doesn’t justify the lack of due diligence and internal controls that could lead to such unprecedented thievery. Had such mistakes occurred in the private sector, the executives in charge would be perusing LinkedIn. In the public sector, it’s just business as usual. And so it goes.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.