Hurricane Recovery Spending Difficult to Monitor
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now Congress' immediate response to Hurricane Katrina was fairly simple. It gave the administration $62 billion to pay for recovery efforts all up and down the Gulf Coast. Trying to figure out how that money is actually spent is anything but simple, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
In a storefront office just a few blocks from the US Capitol, Daniel Mandel(ph) combs through pages of government contracting reports. He's with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.
Mr. DANIEL MANDEL (Taxpayers for Common Sense): Why do we have fingerprint ID machines? What do we need those for?
FESSLER: Mandel is trying to make some sense out of the thousands of pieces of information he's collected on contracts awarded since the hurricane. He's marked some interesting items, such as $14,500 for Hurricane Katrina souvenir coins. And then there are all those T-shirts.
Mr. MANDEL: FEMA got T-shirts and then the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided they needed to get T-shirts and then two of the private engineering firms contracted by the Army Corps decided their engineers needed T-shirts.
FESSLER: Some pretty small items, admittedly. Mandel has found no evidence yet of massive waste. But tracking the spending hasn't been easy. There's no central government database and Keith Ashdown, the group's vice president, says information posted on agency Web sites is incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. He says some big contracts, such as $236 million for Carnival Cruise Lines to provide housing, are not included on lists from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That's because those contracts were negotiated by other agencies.
Mr. KEITH ASHDOWN (Taxpayers for Common Sense): The thing that's happened here is we've had a record amount of money appropriated in a very short period of time, and we're still trying to catch up to doing proper oversight. And so, if we blink, that could mean a billion dollars just disappears.
FESSLER: Administration officials are aware of the concerns. They insist they're being as open as possible. Colonel Norbert Doyle of the Army Corps of Engineers tried to reassure lawmakers at a recent House hearing.
Colonel NORBERT DOYLE (US Army Corps of Engineers): We strive to maintain transparency in our contracting activities and welcome oversight of our activities. On our Web site, we give specific contract information to include the contractor, dollar value and purpose of the contracts for all to see.
FESSLER: And indeed, the Army Corps' home page has a link to a list of its Katrina contracts and to a weekly spending report to Congress. The Homeland Security Department Web site also has a list of FEMA contracts. But that list is hard to find, and there are errors. First, it said FEMA had awarded $4 billion in contracts, later it said 3 billion after several duplicate entries were deleted.
Frustration at the lack of good data boiled over at a hearing before the Senate Small Business Committee. Chairwoman Olympia Snowe of Maine complained to administration witnesses that her panel couldn't verify claims that at least 45 percent of the contracts had gone to small businesses.
Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): This committee would like to have documentation of all these numbers, because...
Unidentified Man: Sure. I'd be happy...
Sen. SNOWE: ...we have no documentation. So how do you get...
Unidentified Man: I'd be happy to provide you with that documentation.
Sen. SNOWE: With defense and homeland security excluded from those numbers, how do you get 45 percent? Major disparities in these numbers.
Unidentified Man: That's...
FESSLER: In the House, California Democrat Henry Waxman has called for the creation of a comprehensive public database on all hurricane contracts.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Unless we insist on these measures, we're not going to get the transparency that we need, the transparency we didn't get with the Iraq contracts, and I fear that we're going to see waste, fraud and abuse of the taxpayers' money.
FESSLER: Such a database is unlikely at this point, but administration officials say they're very aware that a lot of people are watching what they do. The Homeland Security Inspector general's office has dozens of auditors tracking hurricane spending by various agencies, and the Government Accountability Office has already issued a report expressing concern that the administration might have overspent on at least one contract: $39 million for portable classrooms in Mississippi. And there have been other anecdotal reports of firms charging bloated prices.
Greg Rothwell, chief procurement officer for the Department of Homeland Security, told a House committee that's why his agency wants to release details of its contracts as quickly as possible.
Mr. GREG ROTHWELL (Chief Procurement Officer, Department of Homeland Security): Typically, data on a procurement doesn't fall until about six months after the action. We need that data almost daily because we actually believe when we have the data, it'll show a much better story than we're able to show.
FESSLER: Mandel and Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense say the sooner the public has the information, the better. This is just the first wave of hundreds of billions of dollars expected to be spent on the Gulf Coast. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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