WASHINGTON — Senators grilled federal auditors Thursday on ways to prevent waste and fraud as the government doles out the first portions of a $787 billion economic stimulus package.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is charged with the task of overseeing the billions of stimulus dollars aimed at saving and creating jobs and boosting consumer spending. Committee members asked federal inspectors how they would monitor the money, at least $58 billion of which already has been allocated to specific programs, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Lawmakers said it could be difficult balancing efficiency with the need to spend the stimulus funds quickly, which most economists say is necessary if the money is to effectively boost the economy. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the senior Republican on the committee, pressed auditors to hire more talent soon.
“The federal hiring process is so encumbered with regulation that it’s very difficult for you to hire people quickly, even if they’re supremely qualified,” Collins told Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong. Collins said she is working with Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., on a bill to make it easier to temporarily hire more auditors.
Collins pointed to the federal Web site Recovery.gov, which already has received more than 1 million hits, as a sign of the stimulus program’s transparency and told the auditors she would like the site to expand to include more details on individual programs down to the state and local level.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to reform the Web site, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Collins said later in a phone interview. “The more eyes that we have on these expenditures, the better it will protect us against mismanagement, waste and outright fraud.”
The House version of the stimulus bill also contained a provision that would shield federal workers who expose corruption in stimulus grants and contracts, but Collins said Senate negotiators agreed to remove the protections from the bill, citing concerns over national security.
Instead, Collins co-sponsored a separate whistle-blower protection bill on Tuesday, but it does not guarantee employees the right to a jury trial to defend themselves against agencies that seek to suppress information on waste.
The omission could make stimulus spending less transparent as a result, Marthena Cowart, spokeswoman for Project on Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit organization that investigates corruption in the federal government.
“It’s just not enough,” Cowart said in a phone interview. “We can all count on some of this money being misused, and we need to ensure that federal workers who are on the front lines of this … have access to a jury trial.”
Cowart added, however, that Collins has consistently advocated for federal whistle-blower protection.
Collins defended the change, saying the existing forum for whistle-blowers to defend themselves, the Merit Systems Protection Board, is a better system than allowing workers to take the cases to expensive jury trials.
Gene Dodaro, the acting comptroller general of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told the committee his agency would monitor spending in 16 states that make up two-thirds of the nation’s population over the next few years but will largely rely on other states’ own auditors to root out waste in the program. Maine is among the states that will face less federal oversight.
The state government will hire one to two new employees in addition to auditors in the state controller’s office to ensure that stimulus projects in Maine meet federal requirements for efficiency and transparency, said David Farmer, deputy chief of staff for Gov. John Baldacci.
Baldacci also launched a Web site where Mainers can look up general information on where stimulus money is being spent in the state.
“We will be up to the task of doing this,” Farmer said.
In the 1st Congressional District, there will be a “recovery czar.” Rep. Chellie Pingree announced Thursday that Jackie Potter, former chief of staff to former Rep. Tom Allen, will help Maine businesses and individuals take advantage of stimulus funding.