Even though over 40 percent of people who had “actionable complaints” about the use of stimulus money referenced the “recovery” signs, government agencies refuse to provide accurate information about the cost of the signage. This according to a letter sent by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Aaron Schock (R-IL) to Earl Devaney, the head of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board.
Three months ago, Issa sent a letter requesting an investigation into the signs — asking if the signs were required and what the total cost was. While the various inspectors general found that in most cases the signs were not required, they were encouraged in such a way as to make the distinction meaningless.
Six agencies — the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, the General Services Administration (GSA), and the Environmental Protection Agency — were asked to provide hard data on the cost of the signage. Most of the agencies surveyed did not provide the methods they used to come up with their “total cost assessments,” and yet certified the results as accurate anyway.
In one case, according to the latest letter sent to Devaney, EPA flatly refused to comply with the request and then directed Devaney to an estimate formed by sampling just nine projects out of a group of more than 4,000.
In its response to Devaney, EPA said:
As of July 2010, EPA did not have information on the total cost of posting signs, logos, or emblems related to the Recovery Act. Recipients are not required to report this information. Therefore, we cannot provide an assessment of the total cost of posting signs, logos, or emblems.
On July 15, 2010, the RAT Board sent a request to EPA’s Senior Accountable Official for Recovery to provide the assessment of total cost to the RAT Board by September 3, 2010. In response to the request, the OIG contacted a limited number of recipients and asked them about the signs that they purchased. The cost and type of signs varied greatly. … We did not verify the cost information provided to us.
In other words: “Not only do we not know how much the signs cost, we’re not really interested in finding out, and we’re not going to double-check to make sure we got the proper information from the people we gave money to.”
Issa and Schock are understandably disappointed in the response given Devaney.
The excuse made by the administration for the signage was, according to the Office of Management and Budget:
Signage is one of several ways to provide the public with full notice of how its tax dollars are being spent and advance the Recovery Act’s goals of openness and transparency. However, it is important that costs associated with signage are reasonable and limited. Signs should not be produced or displayed if doing so results in unreasonable cost or expense.
Guidance therefore intends to encourage — but does not require the use of signage where appropriate and in furtherance of openness and transparency.
Only two of the agencies surveyed provided sample sizes — EPA and the Department of Commerce — and in the case of EPA the sampling method was flawed, according to Issa and Schock:
As you may know, sample sizes of at least twenty randomly selected and unbiased data points are typically required to produce an estimate that contains any meaningful information about a given population. GSA provided an estimate of its spending on signs based only on a subset of its total stimulus projects, which does not constitute an accurate assessment of total cost. DOT reported a figure for total cost which is obviously an estimate but which provides no insight at all into the methodology used to obtain this number.
It is hardly transparency when federal agencies refuse to cooperate with inspectors general who are tasked with oversight. I would hope Devaney is as angry as I suspect Issa and Schock are.
The congressmen conclude their letter by asking Devaney what additional authority he needs in order to do his job. And this is the nub of the matter: when watchdogs who are supposed to be independent are unable to require the agencies they are tasked with overseeing to provide them with accurate information, real transparency, as opposed to the fake kind provided by these signs, is impossible. So long as federal agencies can get away with refusing to comply with requests from Congress, real reform is also impossible.
Issa and Schock have launched a map at http://republicans.oversight.house.gov/ where they are asking average Americans to help push for more oversight of the so-called stimulus by sending pictures and locations of so-called stimulus signs to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Certainly that would be a start. More than anything, conservatives need to take back at minimum the House, and preferably the Senate as well in November. Perhaps then a real investigation into the waste and fraud in the “stimulus” act can be launched.
It’s certainly far more than just what’s been spent on the signage. As was noted in the response to Devaney’s report, Devaney told the Wall Street Journal:
You start with any bucket of money like this. The experts, the people who work in the fraud arena, say there will significant fraud, around 7% lost to fraud in most cases. So if you do the math on $787 billion … and you get $55.1 billion.
That is a significant sum of money lost to fraud. We need to know where it went, and IGs need the subpoena power necessary to make that happen.