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The Great Grift: How billions in COVID-19 relief aid was stolen or wasted

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The story began with a simple question posed by Acting Global Investigations Editor Alison Kodjak during a January meeting: “How much COVID-19 relief money was stolen?” What followed was an investigation by multiple teams to document how much of the federal government’s $4.2 trillion (about $13,000 per person in the U.S.) in COVID-19 relief aid was looted or misspent — the first such analysis by a news organization.

Because there is no central database tracking such fraud across so many different government agencies, global investigations reporter Richard Lardner, climate reporter Jennifer McDermott and data team reporter Aaron Kessler spent months conducting scores of interviews, reading dozens of government indictments and reports and tracking down experts. In the end, they determined that scam artists potentially stole more than $280 billion in COVID-19 relief funding, and another $123 billion was wasted or misspent. Combined, the loss represents 10% of the COVID relief aid the U.S. government has so far disbursed. Senior video producer Jeannie Ohm and motion graphics designer Eva Malek created an animated video explainer, narrated by Kessler, that succinctly laid out how easy it was for fraudsters to make off with so much money. Multimedia editor Kevin Vineys produced a series of compelling graphics that helped break down government spending and potential theft.

While certain aspects of COVID-19 relief fraud had been unearthed before, the AP was the first to pull together disparate data sources and reports into a cohesive and more credible whole that told the story of how so much was stolen so easily. Dozens of news organizations, including The Washington Post, ABC News and Yahoo News, picked up the piece. Others, including Fox News, cited it during on-air reports. Lardner was interviewed as part of a CBS News story about the AP’s reporting. He was also interviewed by Michael Smerconish on CNN, Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC, and national radio shows. In addition, it was picked up in the Sunday Long Read newsletter. The story got more than 250k hits on apnews.com, making it the most-read enterprise story over a seven-day period.

For their dogged effort to document how much of the U.S. federal government’s $4.2 trillion in COVID-19 relief was looted or misspent, Lardner, McDermott, Kessler, Vineys and Malek earn Best of the Week — First Winner.

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