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Nominee to oversee pandemic rescue funds grilled over Trump ties

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WASHINGTON — Senate Banking Committee members on Tuesday grilled a White House lawyer nominated to help lead the oversight of the Trump administration’s use of congressionally appropriated money to respond to the coronavirus pandemic

If confirmed, Brian Miller would assume the role of special inspector general for pandemic response, an office Congress created when it passed the coronavirus rescue package in March. The bill allocated about $500 billion to the Treasury Department to distribute to households and businesses affected by the coronavirus.

The new watchdog role — one of three oversight positions creating to monitor spending of the $2 trillion stimulus package — could extend to overseeing funds Treasury provides for the Federal Reserve's emergency credit facilities, such as the Main Street Lending Program and the Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility.

The Trump administration has been criticized for challenging scrutiny of its allocation of the stimulus funds, and recently dismissed acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, who was expected to have a role in overseeing implemention of the rescue package.

At the hearing in which many lawmakers appeared via video chat, Miller refused to answer most questions about his role as White House counsel, which included work dealing with the impeachment proceedings against President Trump. The hearing also included questioning of the administration's nominee to lead the Federal Housing Administration.

While Republicans on the committee appeared to support Miller’s nomination, Democrats were more skeptical, questioning whether Miller could be an impartial figure given his ties in the Trump administration.

“President Trump has shown outright hostility toward anyone who tries to hold him accountable to the American people he serves, including inspectors general,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the ranking member of the committee. “All of these professionals did their jobs and exposed misconduct in the Administration.”

But Miller refused to answer any questions about Fine’s dismissal, often appearing to read from a prepared statement.

“My ability to respond to questions about what goes on in the White House Counsel's Office or the White House may be limited by my ethical obligations — ethical obligations that bind all lawyers,” said White House lawyer Brian Miller.
“My ability to respond to questions about what goes on in the White House Counsel's Office or the White House may be limited by my ethical obligations — ethical obligations that bind all lawyers,” said White House lawyer Brian Miller.

“My ability to respond to questions about what goes on in the White House Counsel's Office or the White House may be limited by my ethical obligations — ethical obligations that bind all lawyers,” Miller said more than once in response to questions.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pushed Miller to answer questions about what he would consider to be waste, fraud or abuse of government funds if he were confirmed as special inspector general.

“How about when companies are lobbying Congress, or the White House, either one — you said you want to look at both — how about that?” she said. “Is that a potential circumstance you'd want to investigate?”

Initially, Miller said he felt uncomfortable answering hypothetical questions, but eventually pledged that he would “investigate any area that I think is an abuse of these monies.”

“I will investigate any situation that I consider an abuse of taxpayer funds,” he said, adding that he considered a large company receiving bailout funds and then laying off workers to be an example of an issue that he would likely investigate.

Several Republicans pointed to Miller’s role as the inspector general of the General Services Administration during the Bush administration in 2005 as proof of his ability to be independent.

In that role, Miller investigated a Bush-appointed GSA administrator who, his office concluded, had awarded a government contract to a friend in violation of federal procurement law, and said he experienced retaliation for doing so.

“At one point I had to investigate the administrator, herself a Bush appointee, as I was,” said Miller. “There were all sorts of ways to try and hinder the independence and effectiveness of the inspector general, but I worked through it all. I insisted on being independent, and never compromising the facts or the truth, and I made those reports public.”

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, urged the committee to swiftly vote to confirm Miller, citing his experience as an inspector general in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“He has been outspoken on the need for inspectors general to have independence and access to information, and I am confident that he will carry out the responsibilities and mission of this position diligently, independently and objectively,” Crapo said. Asked later about the timing for a committee vote, Crapo said, “It is my expectation that we will do that soon.”

The committee also met to review the nomination of Dana Wade to be commissioner of the FHA. She told lawmakers that if confirmed, her priorities would be to protect current FHA homeowners, improve the agency’s IT infrastructure and protect taxpayers from losses at the FHA due to COVID-19.

“I believe that FHA has a duty to support the nation’s housing markets and homeowners facing economic hardship,” Wade said in her opening remarks. “While the virus will pass and the economy will eventually regain its previous strength, the road to recovery will require our sustained effort.”

Wade served as the acting FHA commissioner from July 2017 until June 2018. She then worked as the general deputy assistant secretary in HUD’s Office of Housing before joining the Office of Management and Budget, where she worked as a program associate director for general government.

In response to a question from Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Wade committed to ensuring that the FHA would play a countercyclical role in the mortgage market to help borrowers who may have been turned away by lenders that have tightened standards in response to the pandemic.

“Providing and performing countercyclical support is integral to FHA’s mission,” Wade said. “It is incredibly important that FHA stay open for business and do everything that it can to promote market stability during this time.”

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