It was a straightforward idea: How much federal stimulus money is York County getting, and what is it being spent on?
The answer, reporter Teresa Boeckel found out, was something like trying to find your way out of a maze that changed every time you thought you’d figured it out. Oh, and with the floor shifting constantly beneath your feet.
Teresa’s work resulted in these stories and graphics in today’s paper, which reveal how difficult it is to track stimulus money and how that hurts efforts to guard against waste and fraud. And as copy editor Andrew Staub read her work last week, he came up with some good questions. So Teresa answered them in a Q&A format here:
Q. The story says some money went to congressional districts that don’t exist. If they don’t exist, where’d the money end up? Is it just money that’s gone and wasted, or did someone get it who wasn’t supposed to get it?
A: The money may have ended up in the right location — the recipient may have reported incorrect information.
For example, in Pennsylvania, the Housing Authority of Warren County was listed as being in the 65th Congressional District, which doesn’t exist. Warren County, however, is in the 65th district for the state House of Representatives.
The Denver Post reported a case in which a signmaker admitted that she “guessed at the number” when she plugged in 45 for the Congressional district.
The owner told the Denver Post that she got no answer when she tried to track it down but was unable to finish the online form until she filled out the box.
Her company received $23,000 in stimulus funds to make signs for federal government.
As a part of transparency, the federal government is asking the public to report any suspected fraudulent activity with the money. Info on how to do that is at www.recovery.gov.
Q. Have there been any cases of extreme waste or fraud? Or is the basic idea right now just to keep cohesive records to make sure nothing bad happens in the future?
A. USA Today reported last week that federal prosecutors are investigating a dozen cases of possible fraud with the stimulus money.
In addition, the newspaper reported that there are 88 active investigations of potential misuse with the money, according to reports filed by internal watchdogs at 29 federal agencies managing stimulus funds and the Government Accountability Office.
No criminal charges have been filed so far.
Q. The story noted that to find money and projects, you have to sort through spreadsheets online. How many pages are the spreadsheets usually? If it’s a huge document, it would be cool to sort of show how immense they are, and how daunting it would be to go through it.
A. The grants database is so huge that the government split it into sections. Pennsylvania fell in the Ohio to Wyoming group, and my computer still sputtered at times. Contracts and loans were in separate databases. (The loans, by the way, were larger ones.)
The grants database, for example, had nearly 46,400 listings. We had to sort from there by state, followed by Congressional district. Sometimes government databases include a county code, making it easier to sort, but this one did not. So we had to go line by line and figure out whether the projects were in York County.
Some, of course, were easy, but others I had to check the address on a map to see if it fell inside or outside of York County. Then we tried to check the information against what the state reported.
As Teresa reported these stories over a period of weeks, she, our
visual editor Brad Jennings and I kept talking about when we would get
the “right” numbers for the story and for the graphics.
By the end it had become apparent that there were no “right” numbers,
because the figures depended on what Web site you were on and how a
particular agency chose to report projects or job numbers, and so on. The story, in fact, was the fact that the numbers didn’t match.
I joked with Teresa at one point that, hundreds of years from now, 20
feet underground, someone will excavate a government building, and
there, in a stunningly preserved corner of an accounting office, will
be a long-dead government employee, whose skeletal hands will be resting
on a massive folder with its cover sheet proclaiming:
BROKEN DOWN BY STATE AND COUNTY
But we’ll keep working at it to try to follow this money.