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New U.S. pandemic watchdog says data, tech issues challenge oversight work

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. government agencies overseeing everything from airlines to hospitals face steep hurdles in tracking and monitoring $2.4 trillion in taxpayer-funded novel coronavirus relief aimed at propping up the U.S. economy, an interagency government watchdog said on Wednesday.

Federal agencies already lacked some data necessary to track government funds and ensure they are spent as Congress intended, a problem compounded by the speed with which the government has shoveled money to businesses, individuals and local governments, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) said on Wednesday.

Congress created the committee, which comprises independent watchdogs from 21 government offices, as part of a sweeping March aid package. Its job is to make sure the funds were used to help save jobs and keep Americans off breadlines and were not siphoned by fraudsters or otherwise abused or wasted.

In its first report to policymakers, agencies and the public on Wednesday, the committee compiled the challenges facing the 37 agencies involved in the government’s pandemic response.

“This is a foundational report for us. It gives us a starting point both as inspectors general to develop oversight plans and for agencies as they focus their attention,” Robert Westbrooks, director of the PRAC, told Reuters in an interview.

Even in non-pandemic times, government oversight can be hindered by a lack of reliable and timely financial data and other technological deficiencies, raising the prospect of improper payments, double dipping and other misuse, the group said in the 88-page report.

Those issues have been compounded as watchdogs struggle with work-from-home challenges, technology constraints and cybersecurity threats, the report found.

Critics say few safeguards have already allowed companies to mop up cash with few strings attached.

Those include airlines that reduced staff hours after taking billions in stimulus funds and publicly traded companies, including those with considerable cash on hand, that took aid intended for small businesses.

Reporting by Chris Prentice and Koh Gui Qing; Editing by by Michelle Price and Steve Orlofsky