September 21, 2005
By Mark Tapscott
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
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
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.
Tapscott the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi fellow at The
Heritage Foundation, is director of Heritage's Center for Media and
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire
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.
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