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Capitol Hill, Trump officials step up coronavirus watchdog efforts

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she did not want to wait until the coronavirus pandemic is over to find out how taxpayer money was spent for the U.S. response to the crisis and has formed a special committee to take a look into the matter now.

On April 2, Pelosi named Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., to lead the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which she tasked with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse and protecting against price gouging, profiteering and political favoritism.

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Rep. James Clyburn
Source: AP Photo

"It will press to ensure that the federal response is based on the best possible science and guided by the nation's best health experts," Pelosi told reporters.

The panel will consist of members from both sides of the aisle and will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response to COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — "to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent to save lives, deliver relief and benefit our economy," the speaker said.

Pelosi said she supports the idea of an after-action commission, like the one set up to probe the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

"But I don't want to wait for that because we're in the action right now," she said.

The new select committee, Pelosi said, "is about the here and now."

But President Donald Trump called Pelosi's effort to investigate the administration's COVID-19 response a "witch hunt," telling reporters during an April 2 White House briefing it was "ridiculous."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also pushed back on the need for the select committee, noting the most recent taxpayer-funded rescue package already calls for the creation of a bipartisan oversight panel.

Supplies shortage

The creation of the House investigative panel came on the same day the chamber's Oversight and Reform Committee said documents it received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, showed states are getting only a fraction of the personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, like ventilators, they have requested from the federal stockpile.

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Rep. Carolyn Maloney
Source: AP Photo

States in FEMA's Region III — Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia — and the District of Columbia received less than 10% of the N95 respirator masks, under 1% of the gloves and zero body bags they sought from the federal stockpile.

Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., noted the stockpile has fewer than 10,000 ventilators remaining as of March 30 and the 100,000 breathing machines Trump promised will not be available until late June at the earliest.

On April 2, Trump said he was using his powers under the Defense Production Act, or DPA — a 1950 wartime law used to direct private companies to manufacture equipment in times of emergency — to help certain U.S. manufacturers get the supplies they need to make ventilators. He had signed an earlier order for General Motors Co. to make ventilators.

He also issued a separate memorandum on April 2 to acquire N-95 masks from 3M Co.

Trump had invoked the DPA on March 18, but held off using it for days.

Because of the ongoing shortages, Democrats have called on the White House to establish a supply chain czar to oversee procurement and distribution of ventilators and other medical supplies.

In an April 2 letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Trump said Navy Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, who leads FEMA's supply chain task force, was already filling the role of "purchasing, distributing, etc."

But Democrats said they want a permanent supply chain czar in the White House.

Black market crackdown

At the White House briefing, officials said the administration would be taking actions to rein in the black market that has sprung up around medical supplies.

White House Trade and Manufacturing Policy Director Peter Navarro, who is coordinating activities related to the DPA, said Trump plans to sign a new order on April 3 to address the black market problem.

He said law enforcement would "crack down unmercifully" on black market brokers.

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Attorney General William Barr
Source: AP Photo

Earlier in the day, officials said the FBI had confiscated protective gear, including 192,000 N95 respirator masks and 598,000 medical grade gloves, from someone they said had been hoarding the equipment.

"If you are amassing critical medical equipment for the purpose of selling it at exorbitant prices, you can expect a knock at your door," Attorney General William Barr said in an April 2 statement.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the confiscated supplies were inspected and then shipped to health departments in New York and New Jersey for use.

HHS said it was paying the owner of the hoarded equipment "pre-COVID-19 fair market value."

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