FUZZY DATA: While the Federal government’s stimulus-tracking website aims to shame award recipients that don’t file proper paperwork on time, a closer look as revealed that their own information may not be as accurate as they’d have you believe.
By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — When it was established way back in 2009, Recovery.gov was intended to be a beacon of transparency, keeping tabs on the more than $800 billion in public funds that were pumped into the U.S. economy.
But in the years since, the site has been more of a one-way-mirror than a window into government spending. Last year, Kansas Watchdog reported Recovery.gov was plagued with inaccuracies, misrepresenting the status of hundreds of projects across the Sunflower State. Twelve months later, we’re still seeing more of the same.
Each quarter, the stimulus-tracking website releases its list of non-compliers, targeted at publicly shaming award recipients who fail to file paperwork charting their use of taxpayer dollars. In Kansas, the third quarter of 2013 brought with it a total of six violations spread across five award recipients, the highest the state has ever seen. But as we’ve previously noted, not everything on Recovery.gov is as it seems.
According to the “Wall of Shame,” the Mound City Police Department is marked as a serial offender, listed as having blown off paperwork for three straight quarters. But local officials told Kansas Watchdog that simply isn’t the case.
City clerk Vickie Robinson said not only has the city filed all the paperwork for its nearly $139,000 grant — used to hire an additional law enforcement officer — but the municipality completed the grant in June. They’ve even got the confirmation letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to prove it.
“I don’t know why it wouldn’t be on their website unless they just haven’t filed that yet, but I know it’s been done,” Robinson said.
Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board spokesperson Nancy DiPaolo said if there’s a problem, it’s not on the federal government’s end.
“We’ve put up there any complete reports, so it looks to me as if they did not put in a final report,” DiPaolo said, noting that award recipients have often been tripped up by the submission process because they’re unfamiliar with federal reporting practices.
“Even though it might show all the dollars are expended and the work is done, until they mark (the report) as final it’s not officially done,” she added.
Such user errors were responsible for at least one other Kansas award recipient landing on the list of non-compliers. Alice Amerin, transportation director with Johnson County Transit, which received grant funding in excess of $10 million, said her agency compiled all the necessary paperwork for the most recent quarter, but simply neglected to click the “submit” button through the federal reporting website.
However, the one thing worse than innocent, if frustrating, inaccuracies on Recovery.gov are the toothless measures for combating willful non-compliance. DiPaolo said the original legislation authorizing the stimulus spending never included any punitive actions for award recipients who consistently failed to report on how they were spending public dollars.
Lawmakers realized this fact months later, she said, but “at that point, nobody really wanted to mess with a bill that was out there.” She added that some early award contracts didn’t include reporting requirements.
The only real recourse the federal government has is to “claw back” funds an agency has determined were used inappropriately.
“Usually when we (the federal government) throw money out there, short of committing a crime it’s hard to get it back,” DiPaolo said. “It was really intended for bigger things.”
Instead, the feds have heavily relied on the power of public humiliation through their quarterly Wall of Shame, which she said has prompted responses and inquiries from individual citizens, members of the media and even state governors. DiPaolo remains confident in this process.
“As a whole, it worked,” she said. “We as oversight officials were concerned and would have preferred there even be some civil remedies, but to be honest with you in the end, (it worked) because it was so transparent and the press did a good job, or people were trying to go do a good thing.”
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