State Auditor Keith Faber met with Champaign County Commissioners Steven Hess, Bob Corbett and Tim Cassady during a visit to the county on Thursday. Faber also stopped in to see other county leaders at the government office building.
County commissioners and Faber discussed CARES Act spending triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact on local businesses, extensive unemployment fraud, and long-term goals.
After greeting everyone with a fist bump, Faber asked the county commissioners about CARES Act funds the county had received. Hess responded, “I think we were able to do a lot of good with it.”
Faber noted the difficulty in determining proper CARES Act spending. He listed the three main guidelines. “The first one is, it couldn’t have been budgeted before March 2020. Second, (spending) had to be COVID-19 related. Just because you can spend it and it wasn’t budgeted, doesn’t mean it was COVID-19 related. People got really creative while trying to tell me what was COVID-19 related. The third (guideline) was that it had to be spent by December 30, 2020. These guidelines have changed so many times.”
Faber noted how the rules have been stretched along with some changes in restrictions. “Now (the deadline for spending) is December 31 of this year. We’ve had people who want to do park improvements because people should be outside because of COVID-19. Under that logic, why don’t they just repave all the roads to get to the park?” That statement brought the room to laughter.
Faber said he believes many people and communities have complied with the guidelines, including Champaign County. But, he said some attempted excuses are unfair to taxpayers, “because CARES Act money is taxpayer money.” He said Champaign County spent its share wisely.
Faber thanked the commissioners for doing small business assistance programs. “Obviously, it was tough for a lot of our local businesses.”
“The best thing that you guys did was that you put some money away to help your citizens, particularly small businesses,” Faber said. “Especially those in the hospitality industry: the barbers, the bars, the restaurants … the people the government shut down. Helping those folks helps your constituents and your county to stay strong. When we get to a point where we can reopen, hopefully those people are able to bounce back. It is such an important thing.”
He said relief funds can go toward rent, utilities, health care, whatever is most needed. He cautioned that were the county to offer sub-grants, those accepting the grants would need to be audited. “That is why our bulletin really encourages you to do the reverse and make them all reimbursement-based programs. You decide what you’re going to reimburse, whether it’s rent or health care.” He said the application is then, in turn, self-auditable. “It really makes it so much easier. You can’t discriminate unlawfully, but you can determine whatever factors you want to apply.”
Hess said, “We appreciate the opportunity to utilize that to help our community.”
Faber also discussed the onslaught of unemployment claims filed during the early months of the pandemic, when employees were losing their jobs and crooks were taking advantage of the crisis.
“(Some of) these are fraudulent claims. I wouldn’t be surprised if you did have some,” Faber said. “This pandemic unemployment system is a disaster.”
Faber added that in some areas, fraudulent attempts are a significant portion of the claims.
He said a fraudulent unemployment claim was filed under his name. “I didn’t submit it. As an elected official, I don’t even qualify for unemployment.”
Faber said many others also have had their information stolen. “Almost every state has a serious problem,” he said.’
“A bunch of people are receiving 1099s for unemployment that was paid in their name … Somebody gets unemployment under your name, and you don’t find out about it until you get the 1099,” Faber said. “Then, what do you do? What a mess. I think it’s a systemic failure.”
He said fraud victims should “go to the state unemployment compensation website and file an identity theft claim, and they should print something off with that, and you will need to file that with your tax statement.”
Cassady said, “Shouldn’t the employer get some kind of correspondence if one of their employees apply?”
Faber informed him that through the regular unemployment system, the employer is notified. “But with the pandemic, the federal supplement, they basically designed the system so that it pays people first and verifies people last. You can understand how people figured that out and took advantage of it.”
He said the way the federal government dealt with it seemed like “they care less about fraud, and more about getting the money to the people that need it. This was designed to keep the economy from failing.”
Faber said Ohio needs to reopen as soon as possible. “I am confident that we will get there because Ohioans are resilient. We need to keep as many small businesses in business as possible.”
When asked about the difficulty of his job, Faber said, “I don’t know that I have a difficult part of my job. I love my job. I always tell people what may be the hardest part is getting people to understand what the state Auditor’s Office does. I don’t audit individuals. I don’t audit business. I don’t collect taxes. What we do in the Auditor’s Office is act as a watchdog of public money. We audit people who spend government money. What makes our job fun is we get to catch people who are lying and stealing and cheating with government money.”
Faber said the Auditor’s Office is one place people can go to “figure out how to promote efficient, transparent and effective government.
“I’m fortunate that Ohioans elected me,” he said.
Reach Anna Gaertner at UDCeditor@aimmediamidwest.com.