Stimulus Watchdog Warns of Challenges in Tracking Funds
The chief government overseer for the distribution of economic stimulus funds warned lawmakers today that he faces several challenges in developing and implementing a system for tracking those funds and minimizing fraud and abuse.
During his first appearance before Congress in his new role as chairman of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board (RAT), Earl Devaney emphasized the value of the new Recovery.gov Web site in bringing transparency to the process, but warned that its success could be hindered by the federal government's historic inability to compile and transmit reliable data.
"The federal government's systems have never been fully successful at producing timely and reliable data," Devaney said. "Add to that problem the difficulty of transmitting and reporting data up through multiple layers of government ... and you begin to understand the basis for my concern."
Devaney also cautioned lawmakers that insufficient staffing levels would make tracking the funds more challenging. "Federal agencies, in particular, will have great difficulty attracting and hiring enough procurement professionals to minimize the risks associated with moving this amount of money quickly to accomplish the Recovery Act's goals." Asked later about his board's ability to compile and post citizen feedback on Recovery.gov, Devaney said "I think we’re going to have to figure out if we can do it and not hire 400 people to do that."
Today's comments mirrored Devaney's recent statements to state and local officials regarding his plans to establish an easy-to-use, one-stop Web site for citizens, companies and reporters seeking ways to track federal funds.
Information on the site "must be easily retrievable and understood by taxpayers, lawmakers, and watchdog groups alike," he said during his testimony. "The public must be given the opportunity to provide feedback and be heard." Later he said he wants all inspector general reports posted on the site, "to assure that transparency and accountability… is actually achieved," and suggested "There's probably not a reporter in America who won’t wake up and not click on that Web site."
Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee seemed most interested in Devaney's actual duties. Pressed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) for an accounting of his recent meetings, Devaney said he has met with "three or four times" with Vice President Biden, who is leading the administration's stimulus efforts.
"I think the president has designated the vice president in charge of the stimulus funds and in turn, I’m acting as the chair of this board and reporting to the vice president but doing so in an independent way," Devaney said. Asked how often he will meet with Biden, "My understanding is that I’m now on his calendar at least once a week."
"I certainly have seen him as much as I needed to and I’ve been given assurances that I can see him as often as I need to."
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) asked Devaney to clarify previous warnings about an inevitable mismanagement of at least some stimulus funds, possibly as high as $55 billion.
"Obviously the challenge is to try to minimize those losses. It’s naive to think there won’t be people who try to [de]fraud the government. I think we have to expect it," he said, adding later that "we’re going to try our very best to keep that to a minimum."
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