Stimulus money to 'phantom' districts?
Posted November 18, 2009
WASHINGTON — Did the Obama administration really pump billions of dollars into "phantom" congressional districts?
Republicans, bloggers and conservative think tanks have been circulating reports suggesting that money intended to create jobs and shore up the economy was unaccounted for, misused or lost in some sort of bookkeeping black hole.
The problem is real. Its significance is overstated, and in some instances, fabricated.
THE CHARGE: Using stimulus reports available on Recovery.gov, New Mexico attorney and political activist Jim Scarantino reported on his blog Monday that millions of dollars were being spent in New Mexico congressional districts that don't exist. Republicans on Capitol Hill quickly began circulating the report and reporters and bloggers began searching for other nonexistent districts.
Soon, the "phantom" congressional district story became shorthand for government waste.
The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a government watchdog group led by former Republican staffers, put out a report showing $6.4 billion in stimulus money had been spent in hundreds of nonexistent congressional districts.
On the federal government's stimulus tracking Web site, for example, more than $5 million went to congressional districts in North Carolina that don't exist. The site lists almost $4 million to create two jobs in the 37th District – North Carolina has 13 congressional districts.
Columnist D.K. Jamaal, writing on the Web site of the Washington Examiner, reported that "the dunderheads running Washington can't find it and don't know where it went."
THE FACTS: Scarantino's original report was correct, and his analysis was the latest discovery of problems in the massive database of stimulus spending.
Jobs have been overstated or counted multiple times. Jobs in multiple cities have been logged under the same city. Some businesses and local governments didn't follow the guidelines for counting jobs. And temporary, part-time jobs have been counted as full-time, full-year positions.
Those problems raise questions about how accurate the administration is when it claims more than 640,000 jobs saved or created so far.
Earl Daveny, chairman of the stimulus oversight board, told Congress this week he could not say for certain that the job total displayed by Recovery.gov and touted by the White House is accurate. And a government watchdog report to be released Thursday found 58,386 jobs that were created for projects that have yet to receive money.
There are other problems, too, like the misnumbered congressional districts, that make it harder to analyze the data but don't undercut the administration's claims. For instance, dozens of ZIP codes have also been entered incorrectly. One recipient listed the ZIP code for Birmingham, Ala., as 35025. It is actually 35205.
North Carolina 4th District Congressman David Price said it's nothing more than a clerical error.
"The report is on how the money's being spent. It's a glitch in the reporting program. It was done very hastily. There were some mistakes made. I think they can be fixed very quickly," said Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill.
The origin of all these problems is the same. When thousands of businesses, local governments, universities and nonprofit groups entered information into the massive government database, they didn't always do it right. And the government oversight group collecting the data didn't catch the errors.
But anyone with a computer can still easily find out the name of the business or agency that received the money, which city and state it is located, where the money came from, how much it received, and what it's for.
ZIP code 35025 doesn't exist. Neither does Virginia's 12th District.
But it's easy to find out that the mistyped ZIP code was Birmingham, submitted by a subcontractor working on an Air Force repair contract. And that the Triangle Volunteer Fire Department in Nathalie, Va., spent $50,000 in grant money on a dozen masks and tanks for rescue crews.
Scarantino said Wednesday that his initial blog post was just trying to show problems in the data. The nonexistent congressional districts amount to a "huge red flag," he said. If the oversight board that released the data can't catch that, what else is missing?
"I'm not going to say it went into a black hole," Scarantino said.
And people who are using the error to suggest the money has been misused or lost? "They should do some of their own research," he said.
There are problems with the stimulus data being reported, problems that call into question how accurate the job count is. But the "phantom congressional districts" are being used as a phantom issue to suggest that stimulus money has been misspent.