Monday, November 7, 2011

A lesson in deficit spending and open government

A few years ago I received a first-hand lesson in openness in government and a free press. At the time, I was a grant specialist supervisor for the State of Florida, in Community Affairs, Division of Emergency Management, Bureau of Recovery and Mitigation. (How's that for bureaucracy?”) Our office was doling out public assistance for Hurricane Andrew and a number of small disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, shared the fifth floor of an office building in the Doral area of Miami. To demonstrate transparency in this state-federal partnership, a reporter from the Miami Herald was invited to roam offices asking questions, conducting informal interviews with staff, making independent observations, free to write about anything he chose. He was an embedded journalist in 1995.

Several million dollars worth of reimbursement requests for public projects were on my desk for review. It was the State’s role to review documentation and make a recommendation to FEMA, to pay or not to pay for projects. Using 44 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) as a guide, eligibility determinations were defined by scope of work and accuracy of supporting financial documentation, to put it simply. There were two problematic projects under my scrutiny that week, one a $703,000 contract for a seawall replacement, the other, $1.1 million that had been reimbursed to the local school district for emergency use of school buses immediately after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida.

In the latter case, project reimbursement by FEMA had been expedited early in 1993, months after the disaster. The school district had demanded payment based on dire need, having expended tens of millions of dollars in excess of budgeted funds for emergency measures. There had been contentious meetings on several issues between state, federal and school district staff at the highest levels. The state representative who preceded me had stood firmly between the school district and the FEMA purse. For political expediency, the money was paid with an understanding that details would be scrutinized at a later date. That time for detailed review had come.

The school district documentation indicated that FEMA had reimbursed the district drivers as much as $252.00 per hour to drive a school bus for several weeks after the hurricane. Some drivers were on the job 36 hours a day, one as long as 48 hours in a single day. High hourly rates and long hours were combined, so that payroll documentation reflected a single driver working as much as 36 hours per day at a rate of $58.00 per hour.  My calculations indicted that FEMA should have paid no more than $300,000 rather than $1.1 million, based on “state of the art” documentation. Thus, it was exceedingly clear why my predecessor had vehemently objected to state’s recommendation of payment in full. 

The other contentious issue was simpler and perhaps more routine: a parks department had submitted an approved contract to replace a seawall damaged beyond repair. The approved contract had been clearly altered, the original bid amount of $1,050,000 crossed through. Penciled above a “winning bid” of $703,000 was evident. A FEMA engineer had brought this to my attention, asking for an informal opinion.

The reporter wandered the halls and office for at least three days, perhaps longer. His daily stories were benign; they should have been on the social pages of the newspaper rather than the news section. He wrote of how cooperative our staffs were, how rumors of contentious issues between state and FEMA were simply not true, as he saw how friendly we were and how everyone got along so well. Smiling faces and good humor were abounding in our offices, and he made it seem as if the most challenging thing for us to do would be to find something to disagree on. He had never approached my office.

On perhaps the last day of his visit three staff members informed me, separately, that word was out all over the floor: my office was off limits to the reporter. “Stay clear.”  Two state and one FEMA staffers each spoke in confidence; “you did not hear it from me.”

At mid-level bureaucracy, it is routine to lie to elected and appointed officials. It is expected that journalists be fed meaningless information. Truth telling is routinely punished. Overspending is an every day occurrence. Fraud, waste, theft and cronyism are standard at every level of large government bureaucracies, whether local, state of federal. This is why America is deeply in debt.