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White House officials hindering efforts to go after COVID-19 price-gougers and scam artists: report

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According to a report from Politico, a White House-endorsed task force run by the Justice Department to go after COVID-19 price gougers and scam artists is running into interference from others in the White House who  believe that the free market should be the arbiter of what is fair or not.

Earlier this year, as the country was swamped by the coronavirus pandemic that had the public sheltering at home and hospitals scrambling for enough personal protection equipment (PPE), the White House worked in concert with Attorney General Bill Barr to roll out a task force whose mission was to root out and prosecute individuals and companies indulging in price-gouging the much-needed medical supplies.

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However, when it came to time to go after and prosecute perpetrators, some officials at the White House urged caution and a go-slow approach that has hindered the task force members from following through.

“Behind the scenes, according to people familiar with the discussions, some White House officials expressed reservations and concerns about the task force’s approach, and some disagreed with DOJ officials about how to use one particular legal authority,” Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan and Josh Gerstein wrote. “And now, three months after its inception, some advocates say the task force isn’t cracking down hard enough on Covid profiteers. DOJ spokespeople didn’t provide a list of price-gouging cases it has brought, and searches of department news releases reveal only a handful of cases.”

According to one source with knowledge of the debate between the White House and Justice, “This was more of a philosophical dispute between people who wanted to go aggressively after those who were hoarding and gouging, and those more partial to letting the market sort it out,” before adding, “The White House folks had no involvement in charging decisions, but there is a degree of overlap with certain actions that need to be taken under the DPA [Defense Production Act], so there had to be some coordination.”

As a result, prosecutions have lagged.

“The resistance from White House staffers materialized shortly after the rollout of the task force, according to the people familiar with the situation. It came from staffers whom one source described as ‘free-marketeers,’ who felt the massive influx of people wheeling and dealing for PPE was a sign that the free market was working efficiently to move materials where they needed to go,” the Politico report states. “Another source described two broad mindsets at play. The first mindset was held by those with prosecutorial sensibilities, who viewed the massive, lightning-fast influx of newcomers into the PPE sector with deep suspicion. The second was held by the free market proponents, who saw it as a sign the invisible hand was doing what it does best: moving goods where they needed to go.”

According to Kyle Herrig of government watchdog group Accountable US, not enough is being done.

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“The Trump administration has never met a consumer it wanted to protect or a nefarious business it wanted to prosecute. That the DOJ is allowing companies to take advantage of Americans during a global pandemic is as shocking as it is shameful,” he explained. “The lack of price-gouging enforcement has cost Americans millions of dollars and endangered lives — further proof that the administration is not looking out for its citizens in a time of crisis.”

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