UPDATE: Transparency Board Official Calls Phantom ZIPs “Nonsense”

By   /   January 6, 2010  /   14 Comments

Phantom ZIPS Correct

*Correction: The 18902 ZIP code in Pennsylvania is located in Doylestown, PA and is real. We apologize for the error.

The Federal Transportation Administration is sending more than $11 million to Pierce Transportation so residents of Washington’s 98900 ZIP Code get nine diesel-electric buses. The project is just getting off the ground and has created 52 jobs; impressive considering there is no such Zip Code in Washington or any other state.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped more than $375 million into at least 170 other ZIPs that do not exist, according to a national study of the Recovery.gov website compiled by Kansas Watchdog reporter Earl Glynn. The site reports the funds created 470 jobs at a cost of about $800,000 each in the phantom ZIP Codes.

The stimulus is sending $375 million in the form of grants, loans and government contracts to fund more than 200 projects being performed in imaginary ZIP codes, like Washington’s 98900.

Ed Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, said that the phantom ZIP Codes are “nonsense” and “much ado about nothing,”  considering the 131,000 reports listed on the site.

“This is simply human error,” he said. “Just because recipients inverted ZIP Codes (at the place of performance) does not mean that the money is going to some phantom place.”

All but 12 of the nation’s states have at least one phantom ZIP receiving stimulus money. California tops the nation with 22 invented codes. Ohio, however, tops the nation in cost. The Buckeye State’s Office of Budget and Management sent $220 million to improve infrastructure in the 43233 ZIP code, which does not exist according to the USPS ZIP Code locator.

New Mexico Watchdog editor and Rio Grande Foundation reporter Jim Scarantino was first with the story on Monday. Stories from other state-based watchdogs followed (here, here, here and here).

The ZIP Code filing errors echo the phantom congressional district scandal that tore through Capitol Hill in November. Recovery.gov more than doubled the size of congress, listing 440 non-existent congressional districts as stimulus recipients.

The transparency board, which oversees the $18 million website, began correcting the errors after factcheck.org called it one of the “biggest whoppers of 2009.” The nonexistent districts were taken off the site and categorized as “Unassigned Congressional Districts.”

The phantom ZIP Codes are evidence that Recovery.gov data entry errors continue despite steps taken to improve the site. But Pound says that those errors will not be repeated in the coming cycle of reports.

“We have enhancements in place for the next reporting period that will not accept a recipient’s report if the congressional district or ZIP Code is incorrect,” he said.

The enhancements have been in place for weeks, but were not applied retroactively because, he said curtly, “we’re trying to get the job done.”

Data is gathered at the local level. Stimulus recipients supply information, including their congressional districts, ZIP codes, funding levels and job creation.

Even in small cities, officials entered the wrong data. Bowling Green, Ky., received just over $1 million in stimulus money, but those distributing it apparently are unaware that 42121 is not one of the city’s four ZIP codes.

The phantom ZIP codes listed on Recovery.gov do not necessarily reflect stimulus fraud or misuse. An AP fact check found that funds sent to phantom districts were accounted for, even if congressmen were not.

President Obama ordered all stimulus funds to be listed on the Web. The next report in due out on January 30.

All data was gathered at Recovery.gov. ZIP Codes were then plugged into the United States Postal Service ZIP finder.

The full report is below:
Phantom ZIP Codes


Bill formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.