U.S. Attorney General William Barr has ordered all United States Attorneys to establish task forces in their districts to investigate and prosecute crimes related to COVID-19. Such a directive by the nation’s top law enforcement official puts the general public on notice of an increased focus and priority by all levels of federal law enforcement on the investigation and enforcement of policies and procedures relating to COVID-19 relief. In a memorandum to all U. S. Attorneys, AG Barr directed every U.S. Attorney’s Office to “prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of all criminal conduct related to the current pandemic.”

Similar to the previous Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force or the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force established after the 2008 economic downturn, the CARES Act requires large scale task forces led by the Department of Justice to target fraud, waste, and abuse. In collaboration with Health and Human Services (“HHS”) and other law enforcement agencies, the Department of Justice has already established task forces specifically tasked with significant dedicated resources and Assistant U.S. Attorneys to prosecute these cases.

For example, in some districts the United States Attorney has appointed a lead Assistant U.S. Attorney for each separate geographic regional office in the district. The delegation of such a priority with multiple Assistant U.S. Attorneys, along with dedicated law enforcement officers and resources in such federal law enforcement agencies as the HHS, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Postal Investigation Services among others, will create a heightened focus on discovering and prosecuting criminal conduct related to COVID-19. The prosecutors and law enforcement will be looking to apply a variety of federal criminal statutes related to healthcare fraud, wire fraud, computer fraud, mail fraud, counterfeiting and identity fraud. Such investigations will even look for violations of the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Consumer Product and Safety Act and the Defense Production Act.

In light of the unique issues that have arisen from the pandemic, investigators, for example, will be looking to see how medical claims for testing are submitted for Medicare reimbursement or whether individuals are illegally promoting investments pertaining to medical supplies, testing or alleged medical cures. In today’s social media environment, improper representations or offers may be deemed suspect by law enforcement.

Business owners must be aware of the heightened scrutiny placed on federal government funding related to COVID-19 relief and maintain vigorous compliance programs, while individuals must be cognizant of the strict rules and requirements for requesting federal funds. With the establishment of these task forces nationwide, one can expect a heightened focus on businesses and individuals who seek access to federal COVID-19 relief funds.

This alert does not purport to be a substitute for advice of counsel on specific matters.

Harris Beach has offices throughout New York State, including Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Long Island, New York City, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse and White Plains, as well as New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey.