Post-Katrina tech funds prove difficult to track

Two years after Hurricane Katrina ransacked New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, there has been little analysis of the reconstruction dollars spent on information technology systems, government watchdog groups say.

What is known is that billions of taxpayer dollars were dispensed through contracts that experienced significant overcharges, wasteful spending and mismanagement, according to government reports.

The federal government, congressional committees and advocacy groups have posted several databases online that detail federal contract awards.

The spreadsheets show millions of dollars in spending on tech-related products and services, including for software and telecommunications, but the data is not always recent and spending for Katrina reconstruction overall and tech-related spending sometimes are listed separately.

Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said the main reason his organization is not tracking Katrina tech spending is a lack of government transparency. "The contracts aren't online," he said. "[Inspector general] reports aren't always made publicly available. It's too time intensive."

He added, "For us to do something like that, without some kind of whistleblower tip, I don't have the time or the resources ... to find that needle in a haystack." Amey pointed to OMB Watch's FedSpending.org as a good resource. "But again, that's something that's coming from [a non-government organization], not the U.S. government."

Adam Hughes, federal fiscal policy director at OMB Watch, said, "Tracking government tech spending after Katrina would be too specific of an issue to dedicate resources to, and ... we'd be far worse at it than groups like POGO -- who also seem daunted by the task."

The Center for Public Integrity's Katrina Watch project did not cover specific industries like technology because the issues it chose to analyze involved "the most pressing public policy issues that impacted residents and governments alike," center spokesman Steve Carpinelli said.

The House Homeland Security Committee did hold one hearing that addressed a FEMA computer program used for administering benefits to Katrina victims. During that session, lawmakers discovered that a failure to insert certain eligibility factors into the program could have led to additional fraud. Earlier, they discovered that a large supply company had posed as a small business to gain a contract for office equipment.

A committee aide said the members have not focused on tech spending yet but are definitely considering a closer examination. On Thursday, the department's IG told the House Homeland Security Committee that the office has not reviewed tech and communications acquisitions surrounding Katrina procurement. The committee plans to ask the IG to include such work as part of its fiscal 2008 annual performance plan.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has asked the Homeland Security Department's inspector general to inform members of any allegations related to tech spending, spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said. Committee ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine is focused on revamping the entire contracting process so that all contracts, including technology awards, are under greater scrutiny, a minority staffer said.

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