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Pennsylvania has no way to report abuse of federal stimulus funds

| Thursday, May 21, 2009

A federal government watchdog group says 43 states, including Pennsylvania, fail to provide a simple way to report fraud or abuse of how federal stimulus money is spent.

Most state stimulus Web sites detail projects and solicit public input, but the majority neglect to provide clear instructions for whistle-blowers, said Marthena Cowart, spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight.

"The money is trickling out the door," said Cowart, whose group promotes government accountability. "They need to get going, get those sites up and tell people, 'If you see something suspicious, here's what you do.'"

In February, Congress approved $787 billion for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the stimulus.

Pennsylvania, slated to receive $16 billion during the next two years, provides weekly reports on stimulus spending at The reports cover only money flowing directly through the state, or $9.8 billion. Municipalities that receive the rest of the money are responsible for reporting those funds.

The state reported $770 million in stimulus receipts as of May 8. About $672 million went toward Medicaid and $98 million to unemployment compensation. An additional $97.7 million has been committed to road and bridge projects that the stimulus program will reimburse.

Although the state's stimulus Web site offers a page for citizen comments, there is no phone number or instructions for whistle-blowers to report fraud and waste. In fact, there is no mention of fraud or abuse reports at all.

In Georgia, conversely, citizens immediately are directed to a link to report fraud or abuse. In Florida, those who click on the recovery Web site's "contact" link are directed to a toll-free number where fraud and abuse can be reported to the state's inspector general.

"It's probably not a bad idea to look at something like that," said Ron Naples, Pennsylvania's chief accountability officer for stimulus spending.

Naples said the state's Web site — like other facets of the two-year stimulus spending program — is a work in progress. Additional guidelines instructing states how much they can spend on administration and oversight were just released this week, Naples said, although his office has yet to see them.

"It would be nice to have all the rules in place before you start spending," he said. "But we can close the loop on refinements as we go along."

Getting money out the door quickly and efficiently for projects with economic impact is a priority, Naples said.

He sees his office's goal as not just providing accountability for expenditures but also preventing waste, fraud and abuse, he said.

Cowart said public input is key to that goal.

"We can always hope they learned some things since the last time a great trunk of money went out the door with Homeland Security," she said. "We should remind them that we are shareholders in his enterprise. That's our money."

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