Thousands of Stimulus Reports Missing, Resulting in Potential Undercount of Jobs Created
Eagle Peak Rock and Paving created and saved 32 jobs thanks to an $8 million federal stimulus contract to repair Glacier Point Road in Yosemite National Park.
But you won’t find that on Recovery.gov, the government’s Web site for tracking stimulus money.
You also won’t find the eight employees hired by Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport in Kentucky, or the 46 jobs claimed for some $65 million in grants awarded to the Louisiana Department of Social Services.
The three are among thousands of recipients who didn’t file the required reports detailing what they did with stimulus money and how many people they hired or retained.
With mounting criticism over the accuracy of jobs numbers, the White House budget office is scrambling to identify recipients who didn’t report. Vice President Joe Biden said last week that the missing information is unacceptable. And the government’s stimulus watchdog, Earl Devaney, who oversees Recovery.gov, promised to post a list of non-filers in an effort to embarrass them into complying.
The stimulus act provided no explicit consequences for those who didn’t report, though agencies can cut off recipients from future federal funding. Devaney has called on Congress to add penalties, such as fines.
The missing reports stand to add thousands of jobs to the current tally of 640,000 created or saved by the stimulus. Tracking down the missing reports is also critical for the Obama administration to meet its pledge of unprecedented transparency with stimulus money.
In an effort to show the public how taxpayer dollars are spent, Congress required all recipients of stimulus money – including contractors, local governments and nonprofits – to file quarterly progress reports on a government Web site. The reports must contain about 100 pieces of information, including how the recipients have spent the money, how many jobs – and what types – they have created or saved, and how far along the project is.
The first report was due Oct. 20. After the deadline, recipients are locked out of the system and can no longer file reports or make changes until the next reporting period, in January.
To find out who didn’t comply, we compared the reports on Recovery.gov with all the contracts, grants and loans that federal agencies have previously said were paid for with stimulus money. Even after eliminating common mistakes, such as different names or amounts, more than 2,500 recipients appear to have never sent in their required reports, accounting for at least $2 billion in unreported stimulus money.
The White House budget office said the number of missing reports could be even higher. It estimated that recipients have failed to file up to 10 percent of the reports on Recovery.gov. Currently, the site lists 131,000 reports and $159 billion in overall stimulus spending.
"If there are thousands of people who haven’t filed reports, that sheds some doubt on the total," said John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank focused on labor issues. "There are people who are trying to throw mud on the whole thing. This would add fuel to that fire."
Several stimulus recipients – including Eagle Peak, the Owensboro airport and Louisiana social services – said they tried to file but were beset by technical glitches. They told similar stories about having trouble uploading the report, trying to resolve the issues with government agencies and then being locked out of the system when the deadline passed.
"The first time we submitted the report, there were some missing boxes and it got sent back," said Kareen Duvall of Las Vegas Paving Corp. "When I went back to make corrections and resubmit through the federal Web site, it wouldn’t let me submit. The time had expired."
But the government watchdog that runs Recovery.gov, officially named the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, isn’t sympathetic to people who had technical problems. Spokesman Ed Pound said federal agencies hosted numerous Web seminars leading up to the deadline. The board extended the deadline by 10 days and had 60 people answering technical questions by phone and Internet chat.
"You have to take the time and follow the instructions to do it," Pound said. "I don’t think that’s asking too much of people when they’re receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in money from the federal government."
Devaney, the oversight board’s chairman, told us he plans to use the bully pulpit of the Recovery.gov Web site to shame non-filers.
"Every opportunity I have to embarrass somebody for not reporting, I’m going to take advantage of that," he said.
Recipients who didn’t report range from agencies as large as the Louisiana Department of Social Services, with a $1.2 billion annual budget, to tiny Blue Ridge, Ga., tucked into the Chattahoochee National Forest, with just six employees at city hall.
Trey Williams, spokesman for Louisiana social services, said the agency realized it had a problem with its contractor registration number back in August and tried for months to resolve the issue with the Recovery Board help desk, the White House and the IRS.
"When we couldn’t file the report by the deadline, we went ahead and submitted the report via hard copy, and were told it had to be submitted online and could not be submitted again until it opened again for the next reporting period," in January, he said.
Blue Ridge’s city clerk, April Grizzell, said she filed the city’s report on $12.9 million in loans to increase rural water service. But the computer system bounced it back while she was out with swine flu, and by the time she returned, it was too late. (Here are its reports, which the city sent us.)
Recovery.gov is also missing reports from the entire government of American Samoa, which received a blanket waiver from the White House after a tsunami struck the island two days before reporting started. Pat Galea’i, American Samoa’s stimulus czar, said the island has created or saved hundreds of jobs.
While recipients reached by ProPublica say they didn't intentionally skip filing, the Recovery Board is on the lookout for signs of people who may be hiding something.
Bob Whitmer, the director of the Owensboro airport, said he was very concerned about missing the deadline because of the airport’s previous problems with the federal government. It has been cited for poor administration of grant funds in 10 of the past 11 annual audits, according to a report this summer by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s internal watchdog. But Whitmer said he, too, had computer problems, and the help desk never responded to an e-mail.
"There was a lot of effort there," he said. "We were trying to make sure we did this right and got our information in on time."
In addition to technical problems, there also seems to be some confusion about when the reporting requirement kicks in. Many contractors told ProPublica that they didn’t file the reports because they hadn’t received any money yet and work hadn’t begun.
For contractors, a signed contract doesn’t necessarily signify the start of the project, said Mark Weisensee of the James W. Fowler Co., which is building a $16 million fish hatchery for an Indian tribe in Washington state. The company still has to finalize plans and go back to the agency for approval to actually begin work. And competing bidders have a window to protest the contract and put the job on hold, which is what happened with the fish hatchery.
But the White House budget office said recipients are required to file as soon as the contract is signed.
Still, the federal government should do more to help contractors with the reporting process, said Ken Worthan of Eagle Peak Rock and Paving, the contractor on the Yosemite road project.
He said he went online to fill out his report but it kept bouncing back with errors. After calling to resolve those problems, he filed the report and got a confirmation that it had been accepted. But he then needed a code to upload it. He said he requested one but never got it.
"We’re trying to report the information they requested as best as we can," Worthan said. But "if they’re not getting the information, it’s not going to be real accurate. They're not going to be able to sit in front of everybody and say, ´Well, this is how many jobs we created.´"
ProPublica’s director of computer-assisted reporting, Jennifer LaFleur, contributed to this report.
Officials have struggled to spend the nearly $800 billion stimulus package quickly and effectively.