By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
TAMPA — More than 3 1/2 years after the president’s celebrated signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the program remains a hot target for critics, who view the billions in federal spending as ripe for waste, fraud and abuse.
And now, a new report is confirming that very fact, demonstrating how Florida played host to multiple tales of inefficient, unaccountable and, in some cases, lost stimulus dollars — millions and counting.
The findings are the result of an audit ordered by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, projected to have stopped the immediate allocation of $2.45 million in energy grants, loans and contracts to companies involved in fraud or in the process of bankruptcy.
“These energy grant programs were intended to yield jobs, cost savings, energy savings and reduced emissions,” Florida’s Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a statement July 24.
Throughout the course of the Recovery Act program, initiated in February 2009 as a measure of saving and creating jobs by the Democratic Congress and Obama administration, $11.2 billion were funneled into Florida companies, cities and counties, according to the the federal government’s website Recovery.gov.
The majority of funds were reserved for education grants to counties statewide, intended to stave off massive layoffs for educators in schools, as well as infrastructure improvements as determined by the state Department of Transportation.
Of the 176 energy grant programs offered to Florida, which received a total of $219 million, only 15 were found to have been completed on schedule and with accurate reports detailing how the money was spent.
The state Department of Agriculture reports that 129 projects will be allowed to continue, but it will have stronger oversight to track how the grants are administered. Putnam ordered that 32 programs, classified as “involved in fraud,” be discontinued and terminated.
The audit also found that one company received close to $200,000 in federal funds before declaring bankruptcy — similar to the solar panel company Solyndra, which become the poster child for federal stimulus abuse and a political loser for President Barack Obama, often found in the commercials and advertisements of his presumptive GOP opponent, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.
The specific company facing bankruptcy was not named in the report, and a follow-up call to the state Department of Agriculture was not returned to Florida Watchdog.
“Misuse of taxpayer dollars is unacceptable,” said Putnam in the release. “Organizations guilty of committing fraud against the state of Florida will be held accountable.”
Similar outrage was expressed earlier this year, when a similar federal stimulus program was discovered to be giving $2.8 million in free Internet access to residents of public housing.
Less than 3,500 residents in the Tampa area took advantage of the measure.
“I think it’s an abject failure. You can’t justify that at all. That equates to $7,200 per person, to teach them how to use a computer,” U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-District 12, told ABC Tampa Bay when the program was first revealed in May.
“A stimulus dollar shouldn’t be used to update your Facebook. It should be used to do the I-4 Crosstown connector, they should be used to do infrastructure.”
Ross could not be reached for comment on this story.
“I have one word for the stimulus bill: failure,” Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, told Florida Watchdog.
“We knew it was going to fail from the beginning. The idea that the government can create jobs and stimulate the economy in a significant way is just wrong. This … economic policy that keeps being promoted is a proven failure, and we need to concentrate on taking the money out of the hands of the government and returning it to the private economy,” said Wilkinson.
“We need to make people aware of what is happening, especially nearing $16 trillion in debt that goes both ways. Republicans racked up close to $7 trillion, and the Democrats have pumped out $9 trillion — so both sides are equally to blame.”