U.S. government nervous about stimulus fraud, scams

WASHINGTON Thu Sep 10, 2009 7:21pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As billions of dollars from the economic stimulus plan pour through the U.S. economy, members of Congress, the administration and regulatory agencies are increasingly worried about the risks of fraud.

Earl Devaney told Congress on Thursday the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board he chairs is investigating those who may have misappropriated stimulus money.

His board has "forwarded more than 100 matters to various IGs (inspector generals to ensure heightened scrutiny of specific procurements that board staff has identified as potentially problematic.

"We've got about nine cases in various U.S. attorneys offices," he added. "I know from talking to them that they're very interested in sending some very loud signals early."

The Federal Trade Commission, too, has monitored scams where people have misrepresented their connections to the stimulus in order to convince people to hand over money or sensitive financial information.

It has gotten individuals to dismantle websites promising to help people get money from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for household bills or, even, "leisure travel," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He described the individuals as con artists and hucksters.

"The commission is committed to using its law enforcement authority aggressively to bring these schemes to a halt, and to continue deploying public alerts and educational materials," Leibowitz said.

The FTC cannot criminally prosecute scam artists, such as a telemarketing outfit that he said told Americans they were eligible for $25,000 grants and offered to sell them a $59 book on writing grants, the chairman said, but the agency does refer the cases to state attorneys general, he said.

But some legislators questioned if enough was being done.

"These funds must be disbursed quickly," said Maine Senator Susan Collins, the highest ranking Republican on the committee. "Striking the right balance between speed and caution has been a challenging task."

Collins said the Justice Department is training more than 10,000 federal, state and local officials to monitor stimulus contracts for collusion and bid-rigging.

The Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, told the panel it is worried the auditing process the federal government requires states to use for stimulus-related programs may not catch misspending.

The "reporting deadline is too late to provide ... results in time for the audited entity to take action on deficiencies," J. Christopher Mihm, the GAO's managing director of strategic issues, said.

But the Office of Management and Budget's Deputy Director Robert Nabors, who is monitoring the stimulus dollars for President Barack Obama, said that as of Thursday his office had introduced a process for quicker auditing.

A website where funding recipients post how they have spent money and how many jobs their projects have created is running smoothly, Nabors said. He expects to release a report on how the stimulus has operated on October 10.

That report will differ from the one released on Thursday by the White House's Council of Economic Advisers because it will only use the data in the system and will not rely on economic projections, he said.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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