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Stimulus program fraught with waste, report says

A Republican senator's office says stimulus funds are going toward dubious projects, such as a $3.4-million tunnel for turtles. Obama aides say the report is flawed.

June 16, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — A report due to be released today by a Republican senator contends the Obama administration's stimulus program is fraught with waste and incompetence -- evidenced by a turtle crossing in northern Florida that will cost more than $3 million and a snafu in which thousands of Social Security checks went out to people who had died.

Modeled after a release from the White House describing 100 stimulus projects that were in the works, the report put out by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma looks at the same number of projects but reaches starkly different conclusions. The title is "A Second Opinion on the Stimulus."

"Will these projects make real improvements in the lives of taxpayers and communities or are they simply pet projects of politicians and lobbyists that never got off the ground because they are a low priority?" the report says.

Coburn's staff spent about a month interviewing federal officials, reviewing data and compiling news clippings in a continuing examination of the $787-billion stimulus package.

Millions of dollars are going toward bicycle lockers, bike paths, walking trails and a skate park, Coburn said. One town in North Carolina is using stimulus funds to hire an administrator whose job will be to procure more stimulus funds, according to the report.

The White House pushed back, trying to debunk the report before its official release. Poring over a draft of the report, aides to President Obama said Monday that the senator's research was flawed and in some cases driven by ideological differences.

The White House pointed out that certain projects highlighted by Coburn have been stopped. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put out a statement Monday that it would drop plans to spend $1.1 million to repair a guardrail near a dry man-made lake in the Oklahoma panhandle -- project No. 7 in Coburn's report.

Ed DeSeve, a senior aide to Obama, said in a prepared statement: "With 20,000 projects approved, there are bound to be some mistakes -- when we find them, we have been transparent about it, and worked on a bipartisan basis to shut them down immediately. Sen. Coburn's report, however, is filled with inaccuracies, including criticisms of projects that have already been stopped, projects that never were approved, and some projects that are working quite well."

A theme of Coburn's work is that money is going toward dubious projects that will leave little imprint. One project mentioned is the $3.4-million construction of a 13-foot tunnel near Tallahassee, Fla., that will allow turtles and other wildlife to safely cross U.S. Highway 27.

The report said the area "has the highest road-kill mortality rate for turtles in the world." But it also suggests other uses for the money, and mentions Florida State University's plans to lay off 200 faculty and staff members in hopes of saving millions of dollars.

Officials at the Florida Department of Transportation defended the project as one that not only would save turtles but also protect motorists. "A lot of these turtles are quite large. They get hit by a car, and they turn into flying objects," said Josh Boan, the department's natural resources manager.

Construction on the tunnel is to begin in September. State officials could not estimate how many jobs would be created.

Raising questions about the government's ability to manage the stimulus money, Coburn's report also focuses on more than 8,000 Social Security checks that have been mailed to people who are dead.

A spokesman for the Social Security system said the checks were mailed based on erroneous records. In most cases, the Postal Service returns the checks directly to the government.

One $250 check went to the home of Antonietta Santopadre, a 74-year-old retired hairdresser living in New York. The check was made out to her father, who died 35 years ago. In an interview Monday, Santopadre said: "I was infuriated. Where's our money going? Our country is in such trouble right now."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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