Office of the Spokesperson
MR ICE: Thank you, Operator. Here just now, I’d like to thank everyone for joining us today for this briefing on the President’s Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Request for both the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. As a quick reminder here at the top, we are on the record today, but the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
As Secretary Blinken stated earlier today, President Biden believes deeply in the ability of U.S. global leadership to solve challenges. And the administration recognizes that diplomacy and development are vital tools for advancing the interests and values of the United States.
With that in mind, it is my pleasure to let you know that we are joined today by Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon; and USAID Deputy Administrator for Management and Resources Paloma Adams-Allen. We are also joined by the director of the Department of State’s Bureau of Budget and Planning, Douglas Pitkin; the director of the Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, Dr. Dafna Rand; and the department – excuse me – and the deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning, Nikole Burroughs. So goes without saying that we certainly have the subject matter experts with us today.
I would note that we just had President Biden address the nation from the White House, and there is a briefing taking place at the White House as well where they’re speaking to the developments of the day, so I would ask that we focus on the Budget Request in this discussion.
To kick us off, we will hear remarks from Deputy Secretary McKeon and Deputy Administrator Adams-Allen, then we’ll take a few of your questions. And with that, let me turn it over to Deputy Secretary McKeon. Sir.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Thank you very much, JT, for that introduction, and thanks Paloma Adams-Allen for joining us today as we present the highlights of the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Request for the State Department and USAID. The President’s FY23 budget requests 60.4 billion – with a B – for the State Department and USAID. I don’t need to tell any of us here that we face many ongoing challenges, from Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, to unprecedented humanitarian needs. The State Department and USAID stand at the front lines of these challenges. U.S. diplomacy and development efforts are more essential than ever to ensure American security and prosperity, solve global challenges, and uphold universal values. Our Budget Request invests in the tools to do so.
First, this Budget Request builds on Congress’s recent supplemental funding to continue to increase both military and humanitarian support for Ukraine. It also provides additional support to our allies and partners in the region and addresses the effects the conflict is having on issues such as food security around the world. Globally, this Budget Request renews longstanding commitments to our closest partners, advances peace and security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, reaffirms U.S. leadership in the international organizations where our competitors seek to expand their influence, and positions us to compete from a position of strength with Russia and the People’s Republic of China.
Second, this Budget Request equips us to address global challenges that are directly and profoundly impacting Americans’ lives and livelihoods, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, which is already driving extreme weather events and disrupting entire industries and communities across the United States. This request will enable U.S. leadership in global health security to prevent, prepare for, and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics. It positions us to meet the climate crisis head-on by scaling up international climate programs and accelerating the global energy transition to net-zero by 2050; helping developing countries enhance resilience to climate shocks and transition to renewable energy sources; and by modeling renewable energy, climate adaptation, and sustainability principles in our own domestic and overseas facilities.
As part of these efforts, funding will also support mainstreaming climate considerations into all development programs to deliver climate co-benefits in sectors such as agriculture and food security, water and sanitation, and global health. This Budget Request also supports the administration’s work to counter authoritarianism and disinformation, to advance human rights and racial and gender equity, and to support underserved communities, including by funding deliverables from the President’s Summit for Democracy. It will enable us to work to advance gender equity and equality to build on President Biden’s historic National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality by providing $2.6 billion to advance these issues across a broad range of sectors. It reaffirms U.S. humanitarian leadership in the face of unprecedented challenges, including in Ukraine. This request also seeks funding to provide the resources necessary to continue to rebuild a refugee admissions program and to support up to 125,000 admissions and provide refugee benefits to 10,000 Special Immigrant Visa beneficiaries.
In support of Secretary Blinken’s modernization agenda, this budget requests the resources we need to equip the State Department and USAID for the challenges of the 21st century. It invests in our technology, training, and professional development – and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility efforts – to ensure our workforce draws on the full breadth of America’s talent. And it funds the central effort to keep our people in our facilities safe, including through new efforts to track and respond to the risk of anomalous health incidents.
This budget also supports and is reinforced by the new State Department and USAID Joint Strategic Plan for 2022 to 2026. That plan is also being released today. It is the primary State and USAID strategy that directs the priorities in implementing U.S. foreign policy and development assistance for both organizations for the coming years.
In closing, the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal ’23 enables the State Department and USAID and our country to address many global challenges ahead of us.
Now I’ve asked Paloma Adams-Allen to address the key elements of the USAID budget request.
MS ADAMS-ALLEN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, JT. Good afternoon, everyone. I’m pleased to join Deputy Secretary McKeon today to discuss the Biden-Harris administration’s FY23 Budget Request. In addition to being the largest in USAID’s history, this request reinforces the administration’s deeply held belief that the United States diplomacy and development efforts abroad are complementary and interdependent. It calls for funding commensurate with our need to respond to a growing number of global crises while also advancing longer-term objectives – like making development more responsive to and inclusive of local actors, rooting out corruption that undermines democracy, and promoting greater investment from the private sector.
I want to highlight a few of the top lines and critical funding areas that we at USAID are focused on, and then I’d be happy to take questions.
MR ICE: Thank you to Deputy Secretary McKeon – I’m sorry. Sorry, ma’am. I pre-empted you. Sorry, my apologies.
MS ADAMS-ALLEN: The FY23 Budget Request includes 29.4 billion for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s fully and partially managed accounts, an increase of 1.7 billion – 6 percent of last year’s request. This number reflects the nature and complexity of the challenges we’re confronting around the world. It also reflects President Biden’s commitment to reasserting the United States role as a leader in global development and humanitarian assistance. We appreciate the support of Congress to provide us with supplemental funding to begin to address the crisis in Ukraine, and we look forward to working with them to receive the necessary funding to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief among the challenges we face is the threat posed by the rise of authoritarians undermining the rule of law and democratic norms. USAID’s democracy programming, for which State and USAID are requesting 2.6 billion, confronts authoritarianism and combats corruption and disinformation through partnerships with government reformers and civil society actors seeking to hold illiberal regimes accountable. This amount includes 100 million to support the USAID-led anti-corruption initiative, a holistic set of programs to connect, empower, and protect anti-corruption champions and reformers in countries where we work.
On top of combating corruption, USAID responds to more than 75 crises in 70 countries on an annual basis. As the world’s largest donor for global humanitarian assistance, a critical part of these resources is our ability to leverage funds to get our allies and partners to do more. The Budget Request includes 6.4 billion in USAID-administered humanitarian assistance to address record-high needs stemming from new and protracted conflicts, increasingly frequent and more severe natural disasters, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We know that when countries and populations face humanitarian crises or confront development challenges, it is often women and girls who shoulder the heaviest burden. And I’m proud to say that this budget reflects a new era in USAID’s gender programming. In a clear statement that the United States values women’s equity, equality, and empowerment, we’re asking for a historic 2.6 billion in joint State and USAID resources – more than doubling our current gender investment. These resources will fund programming to promote the political, economic, and social empowerment of women and girls; advance efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence; and address gender discrimination and systemic inequities blocking the full participation of women and girls, men and boys, and individuals of other gender identities.
This budget also places the climate crisis at the forefront of our national security and foreign policy with a request of $2.3 billion for climate programs.
If approved, this funding will more than double the number of USAID-implemented climate programs.
In South and Central America, the United States remains committed to addressing the root causes of irregular migration.
To deliver on the President’s long term objectives for our allies and partners in the region, the Budget Request includes $987 million to address economic insecurity; combat corruption and strengthen governance; promote human rights; and combat gender-based violence; and finally, to support pathways to legal immigration.
In a concerted effort to deliver sustainable results for the communities we serve, this Budget Request also supports the structural changes needed for USAID to transform the way we deliver assistance, scaling up the proportion of funding that we give directly to local partners. It supports efforts to decrease the barriers in our procurement processes, provide support to local partner capacity building, and prepares our staff to authentically engage with the communities we support.
With this Budget Request, we are seeking additional resources to strengthen USAID’s ability to partner with new, non-traditional, and local actors – a key priority of Administrator Power’s – including a $47 million request in support of our Centroamerica Local Initiative.
This initiative serves as a blueprint for our broader efforts to engage more community-based, civil society, and other local organizations in the design and implementation of locally led approaches to development and humanitarian approaches – challenges.
In the global health space, a $3.9 billion dollar request for Global Health funds will enable USAID to continue to play a leadership role in responding to health crises around the world.
The request includes $745 million for Global Health Security programs which will contribute to the prevention of future epidemics and pandemics by building country capacity and resilience.
Finally, none of the work we do in the world is possible without the expertise and commitment of our people. For the agency to engage more deeply with the communities we support, build strong partnerships across public and private sectors, respond to the growing number of crises around the world, and embody the rich diversity of our country, we need to make strategic investments in our workforce.
With a request of $1.7 billion in operational expenses, USAID is prioritizing building a workforce that is equipped to challenge – to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.
In conclusion, upon examination, this budget proposal is a reflection of the critical importance of development and humanitarian assistance in advancing our interests and upholding our values.
MR ICE: Thank you, ma’am. Okay. And with that, we’ll be happy to take a few of your questions. Operator, would you please go ahead and give the instructions for getting into the question queue one more time, please?
OPERATOR: For those of you who wish to ask a question, you may signal by pressing 1 then 0 on your phone. Press 1 then 0 only once to signal that you wish to ask a question.
MR ICE: Okay. And with that, let’s please go to the line of Michael Igoe at Devex. Michael?
QUESTION: Hi. Yes, thanks. This is Michael Igoe with Devex. Thanks for doing the call. I appreciate it. I have two questions really quickly, if possible. I was wondering if you could say any more about the request of $6.5 billion in mandatory funding for State and USAID to make transformative investments in pandemic and biological threat preparedness. I’m just wondering if that’s tied to a particular initiative or the implementation of a particular strategy.
And then the second question, really quickly, Administrator Power said in November that USAID will seek to increase its career workforce over the next four years. I’m wondering if there’s a specific number of career officials you’re planning to hire and if that’s tied somehow to this funding request and those that will follow in subsequent years. Thanks.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: On the first one, we’re going to defer to OMB colleagues that are going to be putting out more detail in the next day or two, we understand. Paloma can answer the second.
MS ADAMS-ALLEN: Thanks. Yeah. On the second, this request includes an increase of a hundred Foreign Service positions and a hundred Civil Service positions, which, if approved, would bring the total full-time permanent positions at USAID to 3,720 positions requested.
MR ICE: And let’s go to the line of Rachel Oswald.
QUESTION: Thank you. My question is about humanitarian funding. In the budget document shared by OMB, they referenced a $10 billion request for humanitarian funding. And then I understand that USAID is seeking $6.4 billion in related humanitarian funding. How did you arrive at those numbers? When I tabulated the two principal humanitarian accounts, the MRA Fund in the State Department and the IDA Fund in USAID, I got a number closer to, I think, like $8.5 billion.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: So looking at a summary document that gives the total $10.5 billion: Title II Food for Peace is 1.7 billion; the IDA Account, International Disaster Assistance, 4.7 billion; Migration Refugee Assistance Account, 3.9 billion; and for the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Account, we’re asking for 100 million.
MR ICE: Very well, let’s please go to the line of Sarah (inaudible).
QUESTION: Hi. So I have a question about the breakdown of the request for climate funds. You all are saying it will amount to 2.3 billion, but I believe the Office of Management and Budget says it was rated 5.3 billion. And I’m wondering how that math adds up and comes together.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: So I’m not sure what document you’re looking at. I mean, our accounts between the department and USAID is 2.3 billion. They may be including the DFC or MCC. I’m not – I’m sorry, I don’t have the document you may be looking at.
MR ICE: Okay, let’s go to the line of Ted Moon (inaudible).
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
MR ICE: Yes, we can hear you, Ted. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, I just – thanks for doing this. I just wonder if there is a budget that can be used to improve the humanitarian situation in North Korea. Thanks.
MR ICE: Yes. Operator, would you allow Ted to come back on and ask his question again, please?
QUESTION: Oh, hello, yes. Yeah, this is the question about North Korea. So I just wonder if there is a budget for using to improve the humanitarian situation in North Korea.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Yeah. The humanitarian assistance accounts are not allocated in advance by country. It’s a needs-based response that we undertake in response either to global appeals or situations we see on the ground. We don’t make political decisions. We respond with our assistance as – on a needs-based approach.
MR ICE: Operator, if you would, please, go ahead and give our instructions one more time for getting into the question queue.
OPERATOR: For those of you who wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0. No one has signaled that they wish to speak.
MR ICE: Let’s just give it just a moment, Operator. Thank you.
OPERATOR: I believe we have a follow-up question.
MR ICE: Okay, let’s go to the line of Michael, please.
QUESTION: And I’m just jumping in if no one else is going to. But I didn’t see in the Budget Request any mention of the Global VAX Initiative, and I know that that was – the sort of scale-up of that was pretty closely tied to the Emergency Supplemental. But can you just sort of speak to the status of that initiative, where it stands both in the sort of – sort of future thinking and FY 2023 and how that fits in with this request? Thanks.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: So that’s in the COVID Supplemental we requested for Fiscal ‘22, which is still pending with the Congress.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Michele Kelemen.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. I just wanted to ask a question that was raised on the plane today with Secretary Blinken, whether or not there’s any money in the budget for either the consulate in Jerusalem or the consulate in Western Sahara.
And then secondly if you can talk a little bit more about how you plan to ramp up to accept all these refugees from Ukraine and the continued need for Afghanistan refugees. Thanks.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: On the first, I don’t really have anything to announce on the issue or question of the consulates at this time.
On Afghanistan – I’ll come back to Ukraine – we have a continuing effort and commitment to try to relocate people from Afghanistan who assisted us over the last 20 years and that work continues under the leadership of Ambassador Beth Jones here in the department. And we have funding and resources on hand already, although it’s – there’s some money in the budget to continue that operation that she leads.
On Ukraine, I’d point you to the fact sheet the White House listed – issued last week, excuse me – during the President’s trip. The 100,000 number is a combination of things: some people coming through the normal refugee program, some people coming through family reunification visas, and I think some other ideas that DHS is working on to provide temporary safe haven to people. And when I say temporary, it’s because what we see and assess is a lot of the Ukrainians who have left the country want to stay. They want to go back when the war ends. Many of them want to stay in Europe close to Ukraine because they’ve left family members there and they hope to go back quickly.
MR ICE: Let’s please go to the line of (inaudible).
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Let me go back to Michele.
MR ICE: Yes. (Inaudible) hold just a second, please. Go ahead.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: And then Michele, you asked a broader question about rebuilding the refugee program, which we continue to do. The previous administration, it’s fair to say, was not a fan of the program and decimated the organization in terms of the refugee resettlement agencies here in the United States but also the capabilities in this department and in the Department of Homeland Security, so since President Biden came to office, we’ve been working to rebuild all of those elements.
It’s still a work in progress, but you saw in the course of the fall and the winter 75,000 Afghans who were evacuated from Afghanistan and brought to the United States have now been resettled in communities around the United States. So we have provided refuge to those 75,000 Afghans and are using some of the lessons learned from that effort to continue to rebuild the broader refugee assistance program.
MR ICE: (Inaudible) thank you for your patience. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question. I’d like to ask a follow-up question on the budget for the alliances and the partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. I’m wondering specifically for those countries located in East Asia like China, Russia, and North Korea, is there anything specific for their nuclear threats and their cyber threats?
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: So the assistance that we provide to allies and partners in the region is to confront a range of issues and security challenges – our traditional Foreign Military Financing program, some cyber assistance, as you referenced. We have a special fund that Congress has given us called the Countering Chinese Influence Fund. So it’s a broad range of security and economic assistance to both treaty allies but also other partners across the Asia Pacific.
MR ICE: And I think we have time for one last question. Let’s go back to Rachel Oswald, please.
QUESTION: Thank you. My question relates to the funding to address the root causes of migration from Central America and South America. Can you talk a little bit about that pot of $980-something million and that $470 million? Are those distinct pots of money or are they in the same pot? And is that a lot of development assistance or what?
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: So this is the second year of trying to implement the President’s pledge to do four years, $4 billion in assistance to Central America. This is the second year of the implementation of our Root Causes Strategy and Collaborative Migration Management Strategy. It is building the capacity of local governments, local actors; helping them create the conditions in their own economies for opportunity and prosperity and security within their countries, including by combating corruption and impunity.
The point is we want people to stay there. We realize that they are exceedingly desperate when they pick up and make a very dangerous trek north, which we are discouraging them to do. But the reason they’re doing it is life is not sustainable for them where they live, so we’re trying to help the local governments improve their governance, improve their security, improve – reduce corruption, and provide economic opportunity so people don’t make that dangerous decision to depart and go north.
MR ICE: Okay, and with that, we are out of time this afternoon. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Deputy Secretary of State McKeon and Deputy Administrator Adams-Allen for joining us today, as well as our other subject matter experts. I also thank everyone who dialed in today. And with that, the briefing is ended and the embargo is lifted. Have a good afternoon.
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May 26, 2021What GAO Found When the Department of Defense (DOD) awards contracts without competition, contracting officers may rely on cost or pricing data that contractors certify as accurate, current, and complete to determine if the prices are reasonable. DOD uses data other than certified cost or pricing data when certified cost or pricing data are not required. GAO found that, during fiscal years 2015 to 2019, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) obtained data other than certified data for 77 of the 136 sole-source spare parts contracts it awarded. As the 77 contracts were for commercial items, statute prohibits contracting officers from requiring certified cost or pricing data. DLA also waived the requirement to obtain certified cost or pricing data in two cases, citing the exceptional need for the spare parts. DLA obtained certified cost or pricing data for the remaining sole-source contracts. In March 2019, DOD issued a memorandum requiring defense agencies to report when contractors outright refuse to provide cost or pricing data, but it is not collecting data on the extent that delays in obtaining data affect the time that it takes to award contracts. DLA, Air Force, and Navy contracting officers said that while they were able to determine if prices were reasonable, delays in obtaining contractors’ cost or pricing data contributed to the length of time needed to award seven of the 10 sole-source spare parts contracts GAO reviewed (see figure). Length of Time to Award 10 Sole-Source Contracts in Fiscal Year 2019 That GAO Reviewed DOD’s March 2019 memorandum highlighted the need to understand, DOD-wide, the extent that contractors do not comply with contracting officer requests for data other than certified cost or pricing data. However, the focus was on outright refusals and not delays. Without a means to monitor or identify the nature and extent of delays, DOD is missing opportunities to develop approaches to effectively address these issues and potentially award contracts faster. Why GAO Did This Study DOD spends billions of dollars each year on spare parts for planes, ships, and other equipment. While DLA buys the bulk of the spare parts, the military departments also acquire them to support specific weapon systems. DOD seeks to negotiate a reasonable price for these spare parts to award contracts in a timely manner. DOD uses data other than certified cost or pricing data if it determines certified cost or pricing data are not required to determine prices are reasonable. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review DOD’s efforts to obtain contractor cost or pricing data. This report 1) describes how often DLA obtained cost or pricing data on sole-source contracts for spare parts; and 2) assesses the extent to which DOD tracks delays in obtaining these data and the reasons for those delays. GAO reviewed federal and DOD acquisition regulations and analyzed data for 136 DLA spare parts contracts awarded between fiscal years 2015 to 2019. For fiscal year 2019, GAO also selected 10 sole-source contracts awarded by DLA, Air Force, and the Navy, based on dollar value and other factors, to identify challenges in obtaining cost or pricing data. GAO also interviewed DOD and contractor officials.
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- Veterans Affairs: VA Needs to Address Persistent IT Modernization and Cybersecurity Challenges
September 16, 2020The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced challenges in its efforts to accomplish three critical information technology (IT) modernization initiatives: the department’s health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); a system for the Family Caregiver Program, which is to support family caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans; and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that collects and stores information and is used for processing disability benefit claims. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges in the department’s three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. However, VA has recently deployed a new scheduling system as part of its fourth effort to modernize VistA and the next deployment of the system, including additional capabilities, is planned in October 2020. VA had taken steps to address GAO’s recommendations from its 2014 report to implement a replacement system for the Family Caregiver Program. However, in September 2019, GAO reported that VA had yet to implement a new IT system that fully supports the Family Caregiver Program and that it had not yet fully committed to a date by which it will certify that the new IT system fully supports the program. In September 2015, GAO reported that VA had made progress in developing and implementing VBMS, but also noted that additional actions could improve efforts to develop and use the system. For example, VBMS was not able to fully support disability and pension claims, as well as appeals processing. GAO made five recommendations aimed at improving VA’s efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS; however, as of September 2020, VA implemented only one recommendation. VA’s progress in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA) has been uneven. Specifically, VA has made progress toward improving its licensing of software and achieving its goals for closing unneeded data centers. However, the department has made limited progress toward addressing requirements related to IT investment risk management and Chief Information Officer authority enhancement. Until the department implements the act’s provisions, Congress’ ability to effectively monitor VA’s progress and hold it fully accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings will be hindered. In addition, since fiscal year 2016, GAO has reported that VA faces challenges related to effectively implementing the federal approach to, and strategy for, securing information systems; effectively implementing information security controls and mitigating known security deficiencies; and establishing elements of its cybersecurity risk management program. GAO’s work stressed the need for VA to address these challenges as well as manage IT supply chain risks. As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department take steps to adequately secure its systems. The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation’s veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets—VA’s budget for IT now exceeds $4 billion annually. However, over many years, VA has experienced challenges in managing its IT projects and programs, which could jeopardize its ability to effectively support key programs such as the Forever GI Bill. GAO has previously reported on these IT management challenges at VA. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO’s issued reports that examined VA’s efforts in (1) modernizing VistA, a system for the Family Caregiver Program, and VBMS; (2) implementing FITARA; and (3) addressing cybersecurity issues. In developing this testimony, GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT management issues at VA and GAO’s biannual high-risk series. GAO also incorporated information on the department’s actions in response to recommendations. GAO has made numerous recommendations in recent years aimed at improving VA’s IT system modernization efforts, implementation of key FITARA provisions, and cybersecurity program. VA has generally agreed with the recommendations and has begun to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- North Carolina Man Sentenced for COVID-19 Relief Fraud Schemes
April 22, 2021A North Carolina man was sentenced today to 63 months in prison for perpetrating three fraud schemes between March and July 2020 connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, through which he defrauded consumers and the federal government’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (EIDL), created to assist small business owners during the pandemic.