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Friday, November 20, 2009

White House data spur more queries

Who is James Piscopo, and what is he going to do with our stimulus money?

The name appears on the federal government’s long list of New Hampshire stimulus recipients, but it’s impossible to guess why, short of a Google search that turns up a contracting company by that name.

The database tracking stimulus money, part of the government’s effort to provide “unprecedented transparency,” doesn’t mention how much money Piscopo is going to get or what kind of work he will do. There’s no address for the project or reference to how many jobs it will create.

Nearly half of the 754 items on the New Hampshire list are missing key data – most often a description of the project. We know that Dartmouth Regional Technology Center is getting $80,000, but nothing about how it plans to spend the money. Pike Industries is getting money for some kind of road work, but we don’t know how much.

The accuracy of federal stimulus data has been called into question nationwide this week on the heels of a critical report by the government watchdog group and a blunder on the federal Recovery.gov Web site that assigned money to congressional districts that do not exist.

The watchdog report, released Thursday by the federal agency charged with overseeing stimulus spending, found that 58,386 jobs have been “created” for projects that have yet to receive money. Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, testified before a congressional committee that, in its rush to take credit for saving hundreds of thousands of jobs, the Obama administration failed to acknowledge significant errors in the figures.

Numbers released last month identified more than 640,000 jobs linked to stimulus projects around the country. Despite warning signs that the numbers were flawed, the White House said the public could have confidence in them. Since then, tens of thousands of problems have been documented, from the substantive to the clerical. The mistake in labeling congressional districts was clerical, but Republicans have used it to attack the economic stimulus program this week.

The criticism has resonated, even though economic data shows that overall government efforts, from President George W. Bush’s bank bailout to President Barack Obama’s stimulus, have improved the economy.

The origin of all these problems is the same. When thousands of businesses, local governments, universities and nonprofit groups entered information into the massive government database, they didn’t always do it right. And the government oversight group collecting the data didn’t catch the errors. In New Hampshire, it’s unclear how many jobs have been created or saved. The state reported the equivalent of 3,007 positions through the end of September, but that doesn’t include jobs created from federal money that was awarded directly to businesses, colleges or other public or private groups, which makes up more than half the total.

Some of the other data included in the federal government’s database for New Hampshire is bizarre, incomplete or raises more questions than it answers.

More than $85,000 worth of New Hampshire stimulus money went to Michigan State University, according to the database, but there’s no description of how the money will be spent. About 25 New Hampshire stimulus awards were granted to out-of-state contractors or agencies. Those include a Maine architectural firm, construction companies in Ohio and Alaska, and an engineering firm in Nebraska.

A man named Bryan Gallagher was paid $5,236 to replace bathroom fixtures – somewhere. Matthew Hale got $29,639 for snow removal and grounds maintenance.

More than 350 of the 754 entries omit a description entirely. Of the projects that do include descriptions, some don’t make sense without further research. Ethel’s Tree got more than $60,000 for “bringing active skill building and employment together,” but that only makes sense if you know that Ethel’s Tree is a nonprofit to help kids and young adults with disabilities transition into adulthood.

Most of the descriptions provided by universities and social service agencies and state government agencies appear complete.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.