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Government looks to website to prevent improper payments

Jun. 8, 2011 - 10:28AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments is slated to go government-wide next year, said Danny Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget. is slated to go government-wide next year, said Danny Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget. (Staff file photo)

The Obama administration is seeking $10 million to expand a website that will alert agencies to people, organizations and contractors who should not be getting federal funds.

The site, known as, meshes several databases to check that payments aren't going to people who are dead, in federal prison or barred from doing business with the government. The project, already tested at the Veterans Affairs Department, is slated to go government-wide next year, said Danny Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget.

The proposal is part of the administration's drive to head off $50 billion in improper federal payments by October 2012.

The next step, Werfel said, is to add other data sources and create an operations center that will employ high-tech investigative techniques to help agencies prevent and recover improper payments. If Congress comes through with the $10 million requested, the project will be based at the Treasury Department's Bureau of the Public Debt.

Federal payments are deemed improper when they are paid to an ineligible recipient, in the wrong amount, at the wrong time or without adequate documentation. The Obama administration has so far made limited progress toward its goal of heading off $50 billion in such disbursements. Last year, the government's payment error rate dipped to 5.49 percent, compared to 5.65 percent in 2009, but the amount of wayward payments jumped from $110 billion to $125 billion because overall spending increased.

At VA, spokeswoman Jo Schuda said department officials won't know about the program's potential effectiveness until they receive audit data within the next month or so.

The proposed expansion of the website is an attempt to build on the work of the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency (RAT) Board, an oversight agency created in 2009 to keep watch on hundreds of billions of dollars in economic stimulus spending. Relatively few instances of misuse of that money have surfaced. That accomplishment is attributed in part to the board's use of "forensic" tools to pre-empt waste and abuse instead of resorting to traditional "pay and chase" methods.

Although the RAT Board is scheduled to dissolve in 2013, leaders are striving to ensure that its approach lives on. The board is allowing several agency inspectors general use of some of its investigative tools, RAT Board Vice Chairman Calvin Scovel III said, and could widen that access to grant and procurement officials.

Those efforts could be more robust if the RAT Board and IGs were exempted from legal restrictions on matching data on individuals from different computer systems, Scovel said. To do data matching, federal agencies typically need written agreements spelling out the purpose, justification and expected results from the program.

But that worries some watchdog groups.

After a 2002 federal law required authorities to verify information from voter registration applications with data from other sources, some states wouldn't allow some people to vote because of minor discrepancies, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and legal think tank.

For government officials, "the challenges of making sure that they get it right are very, very important because of the consequences to citizens," said Lillie Coney, associate director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group.

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