Billions in Katrina funding wasted

I hesitate to link to this story because the NY Times is running it…and let’s just say I am less than enamored with that outfit right now. But link I must because this story is huge. According to the Times, rampant fraud and abuse associated with Congressionally approved funding for Katrina-cleanup is costing the taxpayer billions. Are you surprised? I am not.

A hotel owner in Sugar Land, Tex., has been charged with submitting $232,000 in bills for phantom victims. And roughly 1,100 prison inmates across the Gulf Coast apparently collected more than $10 million in rental and disaster-relief assistance.

There are the bureaucrats who ordered nearly half a billion dollars worth of mobile homes that are still empty, and renovations for a shelter at a former Alabama Army base that cost about $416,000 per evacuee.

And there is the Illinois woman who tried to collect federal benefits by claiming she watched her two daughters drown in the rising New Orleans waters. In fact, prosecutors say, the children did not exist.

The tally of ignoble acts linked to Hurricane Katrina, pulled together by The New York Times from government audits, criminal prosecutions and Congressional investigations, could rise because the inquiries are under way.

Even in Washington, a city accustomed to government bloat, the numbers are generating amazement.

“The blatant fraud, the audacity of the schemes, the scale of the waste — it is just breathtaking,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Yes, Senator Collins, it is breathtaking…but I don’t recall you joining a chorus of House-side conservatives who expressed their fear that this would happen and attempted to offset the funding. Look for the pols to line up and condemn the waste as fast as possible now…but someone needs to ask them why they didn’t see this coming at the time. After all, it was foreseeable:

Such an outcome was feared soon after Congress passed the initial hurricane relief package, as officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross acknowledged that their systems were overwhelmed and tried to create new ones on the fly.

“We did, in fact, put into place never-before-used and untested processes,” Donna M. Dannels, acting deputy director of recovery at FEMA, told a House panel this month. “Clearly, because they were untested, they were more subject to error and fraud.”

When you rush, for political purposes, to appropriate billions and billions of dollars, so as not be appear callous to the very real suffering of Gulf Coast victims, you are bound to be careless with American’s tax dollars.

UPDATE: A reader emails the following:

There are two issues……how you pay for the relief (which conservatives rightfully made a big deal about)…..and how the money is actually spend (which I have yet to see a House side conservative really talk about…probably so they don’t embarass the Administration).

In fact, I think Collins is the only R out there talking about how the money was wasted. If you want to beat her up on the first issue….fine…….but don’t say that the House conservatives (like Mike Pence) are stronger on the second issue, because they are MIA.

The reader also points out that Collins did read a statement into the Congressional record in May of 2005 that highlighted waste fraud and abuse issues within FEMA.

Point taken…but a few additional points should be made.

One, there are other Republicans talking about this. Tom Coburn for one…Coburn has a bill right now that actually would be helpful in this regard. The Coburn/Obama database bill would create a database of all federal grants and contracts that would be searchable by citizen investigators. Watchdog groups and concerned individuals would be able to find out exactly how federal money is being spent. This would go a long way towards increasing transparency and rooting out fraud and abuse. It would be nice to see Senator Collins and some others help Coburn in that effort. Collins did to her credit support another Coburn bill creating a CFO to root out waste fraud and abuse within FEMA.

Two,isn’t it politically harder for house conservatives to raise the offset ruckus beforehand than it is for Collins and others to point out waste and abuse after the fact? Demanding offsets was politically unpopular at the time and it took guts. Granted, offsets and waste fraud and abuse would seem to be different issues on the surface, but to me they are both part of a larger issue: stewardship of American’s tax dollars. It would be nice to see Senators demand offsets on the front end, and then root out waste and abuse on the back end. That would be consistency as far as stewardship is concerned.

Finally, it is worth noting the actual votes for the Katrina funding. In May, the Senate passed yet another emergency supplemental bill appropriating funding to Katrina cleanup. For the most part, it was only the fiscal conservatives in the Senate who voted against the funding (see roll call). At the staggering tally of $103 billion, those votes seemed appropriate.

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