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New reports from stimulus-funds recipients out Saturday

By Ed O'Keefe

The federal government on Saturday will post about 160,000 quarterly spending reports from recipients of economic stimulus dollars, and officials responsible for the information said new safeguards should help avoid mistakes exposed in the first batch of disclosures last fall.

Earl Devaney
Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery and Accountability Transparency Board. (Reuters)

The software for recipients to submit their spending information online now includes edit checks that ensured accurate geographic information has been entered.

“We tried not to do too much of that the first time, because we were trying to get recipients to report, without all these edit checks,” said Earl Devaney, chairman of the federal board responsible for stimulus oversight. “But they made so many, quite frankly, errors in their reporting that we felt this time we had to build them in.”

Stimulus critics gleefully trumpeted the discovery of several quarterly reports that included phantom Zip codes and nonexistent Congressional districts. (Ever heard of the 99th Congressional district of North Dakota?)

Following weeks of headlines and partisan criticism, Devaney expects most recipients will now be more careful, as well.

“I may have underestimated the importance of phantom congressional districts up on Capitol Hill,” Devaney admitted.

Devaney, a former Secret Service agent, cemented his nonpartisan reputation after unearthing the beginnings of the Jack Abramoff scandal while serving as the Interior Department’s inspector general. President Obama appointed him head of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board almost a year ago to keep watch for potential abuse of the economic recovery plan.

“I don’t hear a lot of chatter about this having been a waste of money or that this isn’t working,” Devaney said of the stimulus. “The people who got the money feel this is working. Certainly there are enough things going on that you can see with your eyeballs so that common sense tells you there’s a lot of jobs that have been created.”

Though there have been no immediate signs of stimulus waste, fraud or abuse, “I’ve been around this town too long to not expect a train wreck at some point,” Devaney said.

He welcomed the Obama administration’s decision in December to only count the number of jobs paid for with stimulus funding, as opposed to the number of jobs “created or saved” with the money. The Government Accountability Office and several good government groups had argued that the “created or saved” measurement was too subjective and impossible to measure.

“From the recipient’s point of view, it should be easier to figure out,” Devaney said. “It’s quite frankly an easier formula to divide.”

But Craig Jennings, a fiscal policy analyst with the nonpartisan OMB Watch, said those changes don't go far enough. His group wants to see recipients report the actual number of hours worked by employees as opposed to the number of jobs created.

“Count the number of hours funded by recovery act dollars, then let the experts decide if that’s a job,” Jennings said.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a vocal critic of the recovery program, warned the White House against potential attempts to spin the latest batch of information to their political benefit.

“If the new numbers are used to create transparency and better understand how and where funds are being spent, that’s a good thing,” Issa said. “If the Administration again takes the new numbers out of context and creates another propaganda effort on the stimulus then they’re setting themselves up for the same criticism they brought on themselves after the initial reporting period.”

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By Ed O'Keefe  | January 29, 2010; 1:37 PM ET
Categories:  Tracking the Stimulus  
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