- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Trying to track who is getting what portion of the billions of dollars in federal Hurricane Katrina aid is enough to give any auditor a headache — and a problem that critics say creates alarming gaps in public oversight.

“On any given day, the government is spending millions of taxpayer dollars, but we simply have no visibility on these purchases,” said Christopher Yukins, a contracting law professor at George Washington University.

Both Republican and Democratic critics long have bemoaned the dearth of contract information available. Some say it violates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Others say it creates barriers to rooting out cronyism and waste.

President Bush “should announce now that he wants the FOIA applied in advance to all documents for Katrina recovery programs,” said Mark Tapscott, a director at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Federal law requires that agencies disclose contract awards, typically via one of two government-sponsored databases. But through loopholes, waivers of contract rules and technical glitches, information is omitted or can go unreported for months.

The concerns have prompted several bills, including versions by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, and Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, that would require full disclosure of contract awards in one centralized database. The aim is to improve accountability by providing information such as contract terms and a contractor’s history of spending abuse or political ties.

“An easily accessible and transparent database of contract information will bring sunshine into the confusing and sometimes shadowy practice of government contracting,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who plans hearings to determine how the government can better track its spending.

Responding to initial criticism, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they would strive to post weekly updates of awards on their Web sites. Other agencies, such as the Defense Department, are issuing daily contract announcements or submitting their data to the government databases.

“We’re committed to making that information available,” said Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA.

But a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit last month found the primary database, known as the Federal Procurement Data System, was inaccurate and incomplete.

“In the absence of timely and accurate data, that makes effective oversight more difficult,” said Bill Woods, a director at GAO.

Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, spent a week trying to put together an authoritative list of contracts and found himself checking no less than a half-dozen agency sites and sources, many of which posted conflicting if not inaccurate information.

“I have better things to do than hunting around for where the money is hidden,” Mr. Ashdown said. “We would rather the government be doing this, creating a one-stop shop. Is that really too much to ask?”

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