By Chris Adams

Sept. 14, 2020 – Reporters facing the daunting task of making sense of the trillions of dollars shoveled out to millions of businesses in the rush to patch up the U.S. economy battered by COVID-19 have several tools to choose from.

In sessions in July and September with National Press Foundation fellows, the architects of some those digital tools explained how to use them to track spending dispensed under the CARES Act, the massive COVID-19 stimulus package that included the $1,200 checks most U.S. adults received and the Paycheck Protection Program intended to help small businesses.

From Good Jobs First, a nonprofit focused on government and corporate accountability, research director Philip Mattera and research analyst Mellissa Chang demonstrated their COVID Stimulus Watch tool, which combines CARES Act recipient data with other information. That includes a Violation Tracker that can be used to look up regulatory or legal cases against companies. In some cases, federal relief spending has compensated companies that have previously been fined for labor or environmental violations, or criticized for excessive CEO pay, Mattera said.

Among other ways to use the tool: Dig into money received by charter or private schools, as NPF fellow Emilie Munson of Hearst Newspapers did. (Charter schools on average got more than public schools.) Or explore how different units of the same parent company each received COVID cash.

The COVID Stimulus Watch has all available recipient data from all CARES Act programs involving businesses and non-profits. As of September 2020, information on 20 different programs is available, although the completeness of the data varies widely.

The Paycheck Protection Program from the Small Business Administration has released data on about 600,000 firms that received loans of $150,000 or more. That covers the bulk of the money going out, but only a small portion of the firms that received the loans. The SBA information is also often incomplete. News organizations have sued the SBA for disclosure of all taxpayer spending.

Even without the full information that might emerge from the FOIA suit, reporters have used PPP data to score stories such as one by NPF fellow Rhea Mahbubani of Business Insider that revealed that more than 200 of the U.S.’s worst-performing nursing homes received millions in the COVID bailout.

From the Project On Government Oversight, executive director Danielle Brian and senior policy analyst Sean Moulton explained the organization’s COVID relief spending data project.

It details loans, grants and contracts that can be accounted for as of September 2020 –

“When the government is spending trillions of dollars in a hurry, we as an oversight organization get nervous,” Moulton said.

Brian expressed concern about the slowness of the oversight response and lobbying by big corporations that steered money to the well-funded while leaving out some small and minority-owned small businesses. Federal loans to hedge funds that have broad access to private capital, she said, were “outrageous and totally counter to what the Congress was intending.”

Other useful sites for journalists:

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s COVID Money Tracker allows users to drill into specific programs, by industry or type of support (loan, grant, tax change). It also shows how much of the money has actually gone out the door and how it has affected the budget deficit.

The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis in the U.S. House and the Congressional Oversight Commission with three members of Congress and one outsider are both tasked with tracking COVID-19 relief money. Both will produce reports on how relief money is spent.

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee has a dashboard that shows the totality of CARES Act spending, as well as data on federal contracts related to COVID-19, localized to the state and county level.

The Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery has been slow to get off the ground but is also tasked with scrutinizing the actions of the Treasury secretary in distributing $500 billion in CARES Act payments.