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September 21, 2005

Using FOIA to Keep Katrina Recovery Honest

By

Hurricane Katrina was America's worst natural disaster, and it may also generate the biggest federal boondoggle ever -- unless President Bush moves now to apply the FOIA to every tax dollar spent rebuilding.

Bush and Congress wasted no time authorizing more than $60 billion in federal spending on Katrina recovery, and hardly anybody doubts the final bill from Uncle Sam will be less than $200 billion. Private charities and state and local agencies will spend hundreds of millions more, as the Gulf region is flooded with relief money from all sources.

This will be a target-rich environment for the unscrupulous and the slothful in and out of government at all levels. Even if Bush appoints a Katrina Recovery Inspector General to audit how the federal money is spent, it will be too late because by the time government auditors review the books, the money already will have been wasted. Something else is needed now to make sure every dollar meant to help victims of Katrina actually gets to them.

That's where the Freedom of Information Act comes in. Nothing is more effective at exposing waste and fraud in government spending than the FOIA. It shines a much-needed light on the legions of bureaucrats, politicians, contractors and others getting their hands in on the distribution of billions of tax dollars.

But why wait for journalists, bloggers or activist citizens to file FOIA requests that bureaucrats typically take weeks or months to answer? Bush should announce now that he wants the FOIA applied in advance to all documents for Katrina recovery programs by making them public via the Internet as soon as a spending order, requisition, contract or other authorization is approved and government funds are disbursed.

He might even ask the nation's bloggers and newspaper editors to create special joint teams of citizen journalists and mainstream media reporters to pore over the documents and to report prominently anything they find amiss.

Crooked officials and contractors would then be on notice. They'd know that kickbacks and bribes, delivering shoddy materials while charging premium prices, rigged bidding processes and favoritism in awarding contracts would be exposed and prosecuted. Yes, sadly, there would still be some people within and without government who think they can manipulate the bureaucracy and red tape for their own benefit. But many potential rip-offs would be deterred.

We already know how easily disaster recovery can be abused by those seeking an opportunity to make a fast buck. Hurricane recovery efforts seem especially prone to such corruption.

Remember Hurricane Frances during Labor Day weekend in 2004? Frances made landfall more than 100 miles north of the Miami-Dade County area and top winds only reached 47 mph there, but that didn't stop thousands of residents there from getting nearly $28 million in federal disaster aid.

Folks used their relief checks to buy more than 5,000 televisions allegedly destroyed by Frances, as well as 1,440 air conditioners, 1,360 twin beds, 1,311 washers and dryers, and 831 dining sets, according to documents obtained under the Florida FOIA by the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Miami-Dade County residents also used their federal relief checks to fix or replace more than 600 vehicles and to get thousands of dollars' worth of dental work. So much disaster aid flowed to Miami-Dade County that one liquor-store owner estimated that his store cashed more than $500,000 in FEMA checks.

Federal officials issuing those relief checks were so unconcerned about getting caught that some even blamed storm-damage payments in six claims on "ice/snow," according to the documents examined by the Sun-Sentinel.

Given the far more vast scope of damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, the unprecedented amount of government spending being devoted to rebuilding New Orleans, and the history of official graft and corruption in Louisiana -- remember Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and Huey Long? -- it's doubly important that Bush move now to prevent the wholesale diversion of millions of federal tax dollars from Hurricane Katrina victims to the pockets of the unscrupulous.

Activating the FOIA in advance on Katrina recovery spending would also provide a vivid demonstration of the value of transparency in government operations. If it works well on Katrina recovery, it would be hard to argue in the future against expanding the approach to the rest of the government.

Mark Tapscott the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is director of Heritage's Center for Media and Public Policy.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire

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