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Tracking Katrina contracts not easy

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

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

The database of contracts is incomplete. Information released by federal agencies is spotty and sporadic. And disclosure of many no-bid contracts isn’t required by law.

“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. “They just buy from the same person year after year.”

Under federal election law, a click of a mouse traces every campaign donation. Yet no comprehensive public database exists for federal contracts.

Both Republican and Democratic critics long have bemoaned the dearth of contract information available. Some say it violates the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law giving the public the right to access most information held by agencies. Others say it creates barriers to rooting out cronyism and waste.

That call is intensifying as the Federal Emergency Management Agency pledged last week to rebid millions of dollars of federal contracts that were handed out with little or no competition.

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 omissions since Katrina struck include a $236 million contract with Carnival Cruise Lines to provide housing for evacuees that lawmakers have criticized as wasteful, and open-ended contracts with Intelsat and Bechtel Corp. awarded partly because of their prior relationships with the government.

They also include emergency supplies and equipment procured by federal employees using government-issued credit cards with purchase limits of $250,000. The White House since has reduced the limit to $15,000, while details of the contract deals were eventually disclosed by the companies.

The concerns have prompted several bills, including versions by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., 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, a contractor’s past 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, R-Okla., who plans hearings to determine how the government can better track its spending.

Some of the problems:

  • The government Web site devoted to disclosing all agency contracts in compliance with federal law currently lacks Katrina information from the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA — the two agencies awarding the most contracts — because of time delays and other glitches.
  • The Web site for contract offers has little Katrina information because disclosure requirements were initially waived for the disaster.
  • Because only new contracts must be disclosed, agencies need not reveal information when awarding no-bid work to politically connected companies such as Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root that have pre-existing government contracts. Vice President Dick Cheney headed Halliburton from 1995 to 2000.

Responding to initial criticism, Army Corps and FEMA officials say they will strive to post weekly updates of awards on their Web sites. Other agencies, such as the Defense Department, are issuing daily contract announcements or submit 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 audit last month found the primary database, known as the Federal Procurement Data System, was inaccurate and incomplete, citing in part repeated delays by the Pentagon in switching to a new system that would allow the department to report its awards in real time.

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

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.

Among his findings: a FEMA contract with Red River Computer Co. of Lebanon, N.H., for 1,000 Gateway M460G XGA laptops at a total cost of $1,457,200 — or $1,457.20 per machine. On the Gateway Website, the computers sell for $1,151 each, a price that would have saved taxpayers $306,200.

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

Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, said his group compiled its own database of contractors with a history of spending waste or other misconduct and said some of the culprits — politically connected Fluor, Bechtel and Halliburton — were among the biggest initial winners of Katrina contracts.

None of that information can be found on government lists.