in Houston, Texas
Feds' Web site Recovery.gov crashes under weight of federal stimulus data. Site also lists duplicate awards, inflated spending by billions of dollars: Gov. Rick Perry's office.
Thursday, Apr 15, 2010, 09:42PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
computer crash

On Tuesday, April 6, Vice President Joe Biden stood in one of the offices where people are keeping track of how nearly $800 billion in federal stimulus money is being spent and promised to get tough on the agencies flouting the rules for reporting how they are using all that money.

When it comes to riding herd on the stimulus, the president calls Biden Sheriff Joe, he told those gathered at the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board in Washington. He assured the group that he was still wearing his badge. And he brought a message direct from the Oval Office: There would be penalties for those who didn't meet their reporting deadlines.

On Friday, the last business day before the Saturday deadline, the folks in Sheriff Joe's gunsights so overloaded the electronic filing system with last-minute reports, they shut down the $27.7 million Recovery.gov Web site for hours. And when it rebooted, the system was choked with multiples of the same reports, filed by frustrated people pushing the send button over and over, Edward Pound, communications director for the Transparency Board, said Wednesday.

In spite of all the tough talk about deadlines and penalties, the board was forced to extend the deadline for filing for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act reports to the end of the workday this Friday.

"We experienced a significant processing shutdown," Pound said. "We're not running from this. This is all part of a program that we want to be transparent and accountable for. Keep in mind that this kind of reporting is fairly new for us. Things are moving smoothly now. And we lost no reporting data."

In a quick canvass of major agencies in Texas, every one - the State Department of Transportation, the Comptroller, the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the AttorneyGeneral's Office and the Governor's Office - reported filing on Friday. Of the four, only the Comptroller experienced delays in filing, according to spokesman Allen Spelce. The Governor's Office was forced to resend one of its three federal reports on Monday because the system was unable to accept the large volume of information the office was feeding it, Allison Castle, press secretary to Gov. Rick Perry, said. Perry has been a sharp and vocal critic of federal stimulus spending.

The filing shutdown is just the latest in an ongoing series of problems state officials have had with the reporting system -- the same system,Biden said last Tuesday, he hopes becomes a template for how all government spending is handled in the future, "responsibly, accountably and with real and unprecedented transparency the level of which that has never been seen in this town before."

Mike Morrissey, who as Perry's budget director has oversight for all stimulus spending at the state level in Texas, said the office has notified the people at Recovery.gov about the duplicate reports that have inflated both award and spending totals by billions of dollars. Don Winstead, special advisor to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, recently circulated a spreadsheet estimating there were $26 billion is mismatched awards in early February. After a federal cleanup, Winstead reported, the numbers were still off by $9.4 billion as of last month.

Morrissey said his office estimates that the reporting for Texas is currently overstated by at least $50 million because of the records duplication. He has asked that the errors be fixed and that the site carry an alert that the reports posted on the site are not audited and might be inaccurate.

"What is troubling is that the federal government is aware of problems with Recovery.gov's total, and while they are attempting to fix it, they aren't disclosing the errors to taxpayers, lawmakers and the media," Castle said.

Late reporting and a failure to report at all has been a large part of the accountability and transparency problems, in spite of Biden's effusive praise. In the initial reporting period that ended in September, 4,359 stimulus award winners across the country either missed the deadline or did not report at all. After the second reporting period ended on New Year's Eve, nearly 1,000 grant recipients ignored the deadline.

The Accountability and Transparency Board created a stir when it posted a list of award winners who were, as the board put it, in significant noncompliance, meaning they had not reported in either of the first two quarters. While the intention was to embarrass those not in compliance, the board was itself shamed when it was forced to remove 79 names whose paperwork has been misplaced.

And while more than 250 names remain on the list including 18 in Texas, there may be still more problems. When contacted by Texas Watchdog, officials for Wellness Pointe, which received the largest of those 18 grants - $670,875 to build a dental complex in the Longview Wellness Center - insisted that their reporting was up to date.

When asked for electronic proof of it, Justin Waite, executive director of Wellness Pointe, would not provide it.

"I am not prepared to cause any stink at this moment," Waite wrote in an e-mail. "I don't believe that would be prudent to address right now!"

With all of this attention at the highest levels of government, Pound said not a single person has been fined or otherwise penalized for not filing a report. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made no legal provision for it.

This is why the president last week issued a memo in which he promised to cut off funding and bar from the program agencies and individuals who were in significant noncompliance. The victims of Friday's Web site crash will not be among them, Pound said.

"The ability for this program to work and for the public to support it," the Sheriff said last week, "is tied to its transparency and accountability more than anything else. We are saying you are accountable publicly, and I will personally hold youaccountable."

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org. Photo of a computer crash by flickr user Belgapixel, used via a Creative Commons license.

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