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Auditors, lawyers likely to get first stimulus jobs

The first hiring spree to result from the $787 billion stimulus plan might not involve construction workers or teachers but government auditors, investigators and lawyers.
/ Source: The New York Times

The first hiring spree to result from the $787 billion stimulus plan might not involve construction workers or teachers but government auditors, investigators and lawyers who will try to track all of the taxpayer money being spent on economic recovery.

With the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress under pressure to show that the stimulus money will be put to good use, the bill President Obama signed this week directs more than $350 million to oversight, virtually guaranteeing boom times in the field of government accountability.

The stakes, financially and politically, are huge. Republicans who criticized the stimulus plan as a bloated spending bill have already announced a “stimulus watch” program, intended to seize on any signs of waste or mismanagement and turning them into ammunition for the 2010 elections.

But just as with the billions for schools, infrastructure projects and state aid, the stimulus will channel so much money so fast to some two dozen inspector-general offices, as well as a new Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, that it might be difficult to spend it all wisely.

And some experts warn that the government might now need auditors for its auditors and new overseers for inspectors general, who typically answer directly to Congress.

The $350 million for oversight dwarfs the $50 million that Congress provided last fall to create a special inspector general’s office to oversee the $700 billion financial system bailout. The new stimulus package includes roughly $253 million for inspectors general, $84 million for the transparency board, and an additional $25 million for the Government Accountability Office. The general perception that the Bush administration mishandled the financial bailout has only added pressure for oversight of the stimulus.

David M. Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office, said setting strict conditions on the use of stimulus money ahead of time would be more important than increasing scrutiny by auditors after the fact.

“If you don’t have appropriate conditions set up front, you are going to end up having a lot of disappointments,” Mr. Walker said, pointing to the financial-system bailout as an example.

“After spending $350 billion where we still don’t know where all the money went, people are asking, ‘Well, what did we get for it?’ You ought to be able to say: ‘This is where it went. This is what it was for. This is what they did with it. And this is what we think the impact was.’ ”

'Magic potion'
Finding qualified auditors and investigators to supervise such a vast increase in government spending might be a challenge in itself, and some experts on government accountability programs warned that spending more on oversight did not always guarantee better results.

“A lot of times Congress thinks that waving around the term ‘inspector general’ is just the magic potion that will fix everything without always thinking it through,” said Beverley C. Lumpkin, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group, who has studied inspector general offices.

Because the stimulus law requires tight accounting of the money, including the posting of expenditures to a public Web site,, some inspectors general say they are legally obligated to lead by example and will have to post every job that they fill and every investigation they undertake — an accounting of the accounting.

Todd J. Zinser, the inspector general at the Commerce Department, said he would potentially add as many as 30 employees to an existing staff of about 120, using $16 million provided to his office in the stimulus — $10 million to oversee a program to expand broadband Internet service and $6 million for other programs.

The money amounts to a huge increase for an office whose total 2008 budget was roughly $23 million.

Mr. Zinser said that most of the new positions would be in the agency’s four field offices, and that he was planning to carefully track the stimulus money used by his own office in the same way as the stimulus spending by the Commerce Department as a whole, on initiatives like new broadband Internet service.

In some cases, the oversight offices face the same challenges as those confronting local and state agencies as they plan to expend stimulus money, trying to figure out how quickly they can hire staff, whether they should hire permanent employees who might have to be laid off down the line or enlist independent contractors on a temporary basis.

Some Republicans complained that by naming only executive branch officials to the transparency board, the Democratic administration had shut them out of the oversight process.

Other lawmakers, including Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, have questioned whether the stimulus law creates new bureaucracy that will undermine the independence of individual inspectors general.

Thomas E. Gavin, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration was committed to rigorous oversight. “The president has made clear that the Recovery Act is to be the most transparent, accountable legislation ever,” Mr. Gavin said.

Several inspectors general said the speed at which the White House hopes to disburse the stimulus money posed heightened risks.

Daniel R. Levinson, the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, said tracking the agency’s $700 billion budget would require each auditor to oversee about $1 billion in spending — an impossible task. But careful deployment can provide effective oversight, Mr. Levinson said.

“You make sure that you are avoiding the largest financial problems and at the same time are providing a sentinel effect, conveying a sense that you are on the job, you are policing the field,” he said.

This story, , originally appeared in The New York Times.