Panel To Press Stimulus Watchdog For More Transparency

The man assigned to put stimulus spenders on the hot seat will face a grilling today in his first appearance before Congress as the government's top watchdog for waste and fraud in the allocation of $787 billion in federal stimulus funds.

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will turn the bright lights on Earl Devaney, whom President Obama named chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. Questions are expected to focus particularly on how he will achieve the president's promise of a transparent online database that will let taxpayers track the flow of stimulus cash.

The existing Web effort, administered by OMB, has been roundly criticized for its lack of streamlined data reporting requirements from federal agencies and states responsible for distributing payouts.

Speaking Wednesday to city and county officials, Devaney said control of the much-touted site -- which he said gets 3,900 hits per second -- will be transferred from OMB to his new transparency board within 30-45 days.

Devaney acknowledged the challenges facing the Web engineers but remains optimistic that the final result will allow unprecedented transparency. In written testimony prepared for today's hearing, he makes the case that federal administrators have few good models from which to draw inspiration.

"Simply stated, the federal government's systems have never been fully successful at producing timely and reliable data," Devaney says in his testimony. "Add to that problem the difficulty of transmitting and reporting data up through multiple layers of government, as this [American Recovery and Reinvestment] Act contemplates, and you begin to understand the basis for my concern."

At the hearing, Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa will concentrate his line of questioning on the depth of data that subrecipients of stimulus payouts will be required to report back to overseers, according to an aide.

Issa objects to a provision in the reporting guidance written by OMB Director Orszag, which directs that only the first tier of recipients of stimulus funds -- but not contractors or subgrantees downstream -- is subject to detailed public accounting requirements.

"After that, the money trail runs cold," Issa says in a statement prepared for delivery at the hearing. "Under this plan, there will be zero accountability for any contractors, lobbyists or special interests that get taxpayer money."

Calling that limitation contrary to the Obama administration's transparency pledge, the aide said Issa will urge Devaney to weigh in. "The onus of living up to that promise of transparency is on the administration," the aide said.

Committee members are also expected to question Devaney about the availability of resources to agencies charged with short-circuiting waste and fraud as they rapidly pay out billions of dollars for stimulus programs.

Although the stimulus bill gave more money to federal inspectors general, some state and community leaders are concerned that no additional funds were directed to state and local auditors best equipped to catch mismanagement and thievery.

Devaney indicated Wednesday to city and county officials that Congress will be addressing the dearth of funding for auditors, who have been increasingly strapped for cash as the recession has deepened and local governments have tightened their belts.

"I think attention has been drawn to this issue and people on the Hill are thinking about what they might be able to do," he said. "I need all the help I can get, and we all have to work together in this."

The new stimulus bulldog, who has been praised for his candid demeanor and hardnosed
investigation of the Jack Abramoff scandal during his tenure as inspector general at the Interior Department, said he is operating in his old office space and is even still waiting for new phone lines dedicated to his board.

In addition to overseeing the huge stimulus spending effort, Devaney will have to keep an eagle eye on his own $84 million budget, most of which will pay for the creation and administration of the site.

The board, comprised of inspectors general from major agencies receiving stimulus funds, will meet for the first time next week.