June 29, 2022

COVID funds used to make snow, hire a marching band, and outright fraud

“There are too many struggling families and small business owners who are trying desperately to survive while untold amounts are being squandered because of inadequate guidance and oversight.” – Sen. Jodi Ernst

Federal CARES Act money was used to hire “The Patriot Brass Ensemble” from New York for West Haven’s 2021 Memorial Day parade, documents show. This image is from a video posted on West Haven’s YouTube channel.

By Catherine Mortensen

Looking back at how some of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act money was spent is a lesson in why we don’t need another multi-trillion dollar spending bill: they are always fraught with waste and abuse.

When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in the Spring of 2020, it directed states to funnel funds and provide oversight of spending to the state’s counties based on their population size.

Uintah County, Utah used the money to build a tubing hill

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, last January, Uintah County opened a brand new Buckskin Hills snow hill, complete with snowmakers, snow guns, a tow rope, and more than a dozen runs for tubing, skiing and snowboarding.

The price tag for the attraction could be half a million dollars or more, and it all came from federal dollars meant for the pandemic response. That has some struggling business owners and county residents raising eyebrows.

“A lot of people are just livid about the fact it’s taxpayer funds being spent on an entertainment activity that can only be utilized for three months of the year,” teacher Amy Farnsworth told the Tribune. “In my opinion, the funds should go back to the state so other businesses in need can use them.”

Uintah County received $5.1 million. Most of that money, about $3.6 million, went to two rounds of economic recovery grants for local businesses according to a public records request. Another $114,000 went to two local artists to paint murals.

But the Tribune found that some business owners were left behind.

“I had to sell my house just to make this all work. This COVID grant would’ve been a godsend to me,” Darryl Andersen, owner of Wet and Wild Rentals told the Tribune. He said he was twice denied an economic recovery grant for his event rental business.

Westfield, New Jersey bought tote bags still sitting in a warehouse

According to the New Jersey Globe, in 2020 the town of Westfield used some of their stimulus money to buy 2,000 canvas tote bags that were never distributed and have been sitting in boxes at the Department of Public Works since last year.

The tote bags were part of a federally-funded Holiday Visitors Center set up in a vacant storefront and staffed by paid “ambassadors” who were hired “to patrol our downtown streets starting in mid-November and continuing every day through Christmas.”

The $8,000 tote bag plan — part of a $72,530 grant to help jumpstart a downtown economy that has seen multiple store closings as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — were to “emblazon a ‘Shop Local, Shop Safe, Shop Westfield’ message on them.”

“The canvas bags were never intended to be fully distributed during last year’s holiday season,” Bob Zuckerman, the executive director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation told the Globe. “We will continue to distribute them throughout the year including at special events such as Girl’s Night Out, Sweet Sounds Downtown and during this year’s holiday season.”

But the grant application for the Downtown Westfield Covid Relief program pledged the distribution of the tote bags in during the 2020 holiday season.

“We have heard that numerous merchants are on the brink of closing as a result of lost business due to COVID and that if they don’t have a very successful holiday season, they will be forced to close in early 2021,” the grant proposal said.  “Therefore, we plan to create a special printed map and holiday gift guide to encourage shoppers to shop locally instead of with national online retailers.”

At the time the Globe wrote the article, the tote bags were still in their original cartons.

Connecticut State Lawmaker Charged with scheme to steal $600K in CARES money

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut recently charged a state lawmaker and a West Haven city employee with creating a phony investment group last February, that fraudulently billed the City of West Haven and its “COVID-19 Grant Department” for consulting services purportedly provided to the West Haven Health Department that were not performed.  From February 2021 through September 2021, the City of West Haven paid Compass Investment Group a total of $636,783.70.

According to a news release from the U.S. attorney’s office, Michael DiMassa appears to have been using the money to gamble. The complaint alleges that DiMassa made several large cash withdrawals from the Compass Investment Group LLC bank account, some of which were made shortly before or after he was recorded as having made a large cash “buy-in” of gaming chips at the Mohegan Sun Casino.

According to the Connecticut Mirror, West Haven officials also spent tens of thousands of dollars in federal COVID relief funding on Christmas decorations, payments to a city councilman’s business — and a marching band that performed at the city’s Memorial Day parade.

In addition, the Mirror found the city paid more than $13,000 to two West Haven companies for reportedly fixing property damage caused by storms in August of 2020. City officials also spent hundreds of dollars for new trees to be planted, Halloween preparations and new Christmas lights, according to the financial documents.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) highlighted these abuses in her December 2021 Squeal Report, a monthly newsletter she sends constituents to highlight wasteful federal government spending. Ernst noted “there are too many struggling families and small business owners who are trying desperately to survive while untold amounts are being squandered because of inadequate guidance and oversight.”

Catherine Mortensen is Vice President of Communications at Americans for Limited Government.

 

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