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'Phantom' Kansas districts get real money, for real projects

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Friday, Nov. 20, 2009, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 20, 2009, at 6:16 a.m.

The money is going to a Head Start program, low-income housing projects, the Kansas Highway Patrol and a variety of construction and repair projects in Kansas.

But a federal stimulus report compiled by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity shows $6.7 million going to projects in congressional districts that don't exist in Kansas.

Phantom congressional districts showed up in the report for other states as well, prompting Republicans, bloggers and think tanks to circulate reports suggesting that money intended to create jobs and shore up the economy was unaccounted for or misused.

At least in Kansas, the mistakes with congressional districts appear to be clerical errors that happened when the grant recipients self-reported the information online.

Kansas has just four congressional districts. But 18 of the 2,173 entries for federal stimulus awards related to the state carried congressional districts with numbers like 00, 5, 6, 8, 9, 14, 36, 76, 68 and 99.

"You can't draw anything from this other than the recipients filed incorrect information," said Ed Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, a government group set up to run the government's official Web site, www.recovery.gov, that collected the information and released the data.

The board was taking steps to correct the information, he said.

Some say these errors — and others in the reports — lead them to question all the information.

"Transparency is good," U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, said Thursday. "The application is lacking and it is confusing and it tends to question the credibility of anything that is on it."

"A little quality assurance would have gone a long way," he added.

The bigger fundamental question is how money for the recovery has been spent in the first place, he said.

Erroneous districts aside, the stimulus report and some of the claims made by the government about its accomplishments have come under fire.

On Thursday, the recovery board's chairman said the White House was too quick to take credit for saving or creating 640,000 jobs.

Chairman Earl Devaney, said there are too many errors to know how many jobs have been created. Under questioning on Capitol Hill, he agreed the White House should have acknowledged the doubt surrounding the numbers.

Filing errors

A review of the phantom districts in Kansas showed one — the 36th, which initial reports said received $49,900 — didn't relate to any project in a spreadsheet showing awards related to Kansas. The Eagle could not establish where that money went.

It also showed that money sent to housing authorities for Russell and Cawker City appeared to have been entered twice in the system — and both had incorrect congressional districts.

The file for Cawker City could have been entered twice. They had a hard time with the online reporting, said Darcel Rexroat, director for the Cawker City Housing Authority. But the housing authority is receiving the money — $45,048 — only once, and the project is real.

The money is going to help the housing authority for the north-central Kansas town replace and repair roofs on some of the 12 buildings it manages, she said. Some of the buildings — which provide housing to low-income families and the elderly — had wind damage.

The grant was part of money sent by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to programs similar to the housing authority, she said.

In Russell, the housing authority's $120,349 also appeared twice in the list, under the 00th congressional district. The money is being used to improve living conditions for tenants in its 78 units, said Paula Gibson, executive director for the program. That will mean anything from new carpeting or refrigerators to drapes. The money hasn't yet been earmarked for specific purchases.

Errors raise concerns

Paul Soutar, reporter for Kansas.Watchdog.org, initially noted the phantom Kansas congressional districts in a post Monday. The errors don't point to fraud, he said in a phone interview Thursday, but they do raise concerns.

"If we don't have accurate transparency, then the people have no way of knowing what the government is doing with absolute certainty," he said.

Soutar's site is funded by the Kansas Policy Institute and the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. The newly created center supports several similar sites; the one in New Mexico initially pointed to the 440 phantom congressional districts created around the country.

Pound, with the recovery board, said there is a "good side to transparency and that is that the taxpayers get a good look at what is happening with their money."

Recovery.gov allows visitors to click on projects and sort by zip code, state and other options on an interactive map. It includes spread sheets of entries for each state and links to each project's contract information.

"The downside is you have these errors here and people wonder if something is going on," he said.

Contributing: Associated Press Reach Jeannine Koranda at 785-296-3006 or jkoranda@wichitaeagle.com.

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