(Illustrations by Luisa Jung for The Washington Post)

Where did the covid aid money go?

Takeaways from The Covid Money Trail investigation

It was the largest burst of emergency spending in U.S. history: two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.

In a year-long investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash. Here are our key findings.

Lots of cash, little oversight

Washington cannot fully track this historic distribution of federal aid. It’s clear that billions were misspent or stolen, but officials aren’t sure exactly how much. Even where wrongdoing is apparent, experts say the cash may never be recovered.

  • ‘Immense fraud’ creates immense task for Washington as it tries to tighten scrutiny of trillions in emergency coronavirus spending. Read more

Haste made waste

With the economy in free fall, lawmakers and many agencies opted for haste over precision, opening the door for waste, fraud and abuse. For example, the Small Business Administration rescued hundreds of thousands of firms from collapse, but it also sent billions of dollars to firms that probably shouldn’t have obtained the money.

  • SBA approved loans with signs of fraud early in pandemic, House report says. Read more
  • Live Nation subsidiaries got millions in aid meant for independent venues. Read more

Few rules, pet projects

Congress at one point sent about $500 billion directly to cities, counties and states to shore up their budgets. But the money often came with few rules. Republican officials, in particular, found ways to channel the funds to pet projects with no relation to the pandemic, including cutting taxes and building border walls.

  • Republican states are trying to use federal covid aid to cut taxes. Read more
  • Federal watchdog opens ‘review’ of Tex. use of covid aid on border crackdown. Read more
  • How federal pandemic aid helped Texas pay for its border crackdown. Read more
  • Vaccine bonuses, aid to businesses and . . . a golf course? Cities and states put $350 billion stimulus windfall to widely varied use. Read more

A bonanza for criminals

The vast sums of cash that spared some families from financial ruin also attracted sophisticated criminal networks. For example, criminals stole the identities of thousands of innocent Americans and obtained unemployment checks in their names — making the funds hard to access when people legitimately needed help.

  • Thousands allegedly bilked U.S. for free internet — in one child’s name. Read more
  • ‘A magnet for rip-off artists’: Fraud siphoned billions from pandemic unemployment benefits. Read more

Washington floundered

Understaffed, unprepared and overwhelmed federal agencies often fumbled to effectively disburse the massive amounts of cash. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, where watchdogs have warned for years of mismanagement, a nearly $400 million job-training program has so far produced fewer than 400 jobs.

  • Millions in covid aid went to retrain veterans. Only 397 have landed jobs. Read more

The rich got theirs

Some aid programs exacerbated economic disparities. Those with the deepest pockets, savviest lawyers and best connections often proved adept at accessing the money, while some of the hardest-hit schools, hospitals, businesses and families were shortchanged.

  • How federal covid aid trickled down to Xavier’s classroom. Read more
  • The unintended consequences of the $178 billion bailout to keep hospitals and doctors afloat. Read more

Read The Covid Money Trail

About this investigation

Reporting by Tony Romm, Yeganeh Torbati, Lisa Rein, Anu Narayanswamy.

Editing by Lori Montgomery, Damian Paletta and Mike Madden.

Project editing and management by KC Schaper.

Design and development by Talia Trackim. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Illustrations by Luisa Jung.

Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Graphics Kate Rabinowitz and Chiqui Esteban. Visual enterprise editing by Karly Domb Sadof.

Additional reporting by Gerrit De Vynck, Razzan Nakhlawi, Lauren Lumpkin, David Lynch, Chris Rowland, Rachel Siegel, Jeff Stein and Perry Stein. Additional editing by Janel Davis, Meghan Hoyer, Jennifer Liberto and Sandhya Somashekhar.

Additional editing, production and support by Mark Smith, Scott Vance, Kathleen Floyd, Jordan Melendrez, Cece Pascual, Brian French, Mike Cirelli, Phil Lueck, Karen Funfgeld, Matthew Callahan and Bishop Sand.