The Senate Government Affairs subcommittee that has been looking into corruption in the General Services Administration has now broadened its scope.
Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats came before the committee this week to tell it that GSA's fraud losses of more than $66 million are not unique. The same sort of thing goes on at other agencies, he testified, and nobody appears to be doing much about it.
Economic assistance programs administered by such agencies as the Veterans Administration and the Small Business Administration, and by such Departments as Labor, Agriculture, Transportation and HUD distribute $250 billion a year. The Justice Department estimates that from 1 to 10 percent of these expenditures are fraudulent and we're being cheated out of from $2.5 billion to $25 billion on these programs every year. A former secretary of HEW estimates that fraud losses under the Medicaid program alone total $750 million a year.
The General Accounting Office has no clear idea of how big the total fraud bill is each year. However, its investigation has proceeded far enough to give us a sickening picture of false claims, lies, bribery, cover-ups and conspiracies so widespread and so venal as to turn a taxpayer's stomach.
After The Washington Post broke the story about GSA frauds, that agency's new administrator, Jay Solomon, asked for an audit. His inspectors found that in about 25 percent of the 172 projects they investigated, Uncle Sam had been ripped off, and had paid for work that was never done. This is the same percentage reported by staff writer Ronald Kessler back in July.
Opportunities for defrauding the government are "virtually limitless," says GAO, because there are so many programs, so many potential beneficiaries, so much money and so many people involved in spending it.
Sad to relate, "Federal agencies have not acted aggressively to detect fraud," says a GAO report to the Congress, "and their practices are generally inadequate to identify potential fraud. Agencies have not established management information systems on fraud. They do not know the amount of identified fraud in their programs, nor can they estimate the potential amount of unknown fraud. Until recently, agencies have not made fraud detection a high priority. The Department of Justice has been slow to assist, coordinate and monitor the anti-fraud efforts of federal agencies. GAO believes a more active, systematic approach to identifying fraud is needed."
When we lament the amounts deducted from our paychecks each week, we are not in complete agreement as to which federal programs should be trimmed or eliminated. What one man considers a vital social program may be regarded by another as sheer waste, and possibly socialistic intrusion into private lives.
But there is one thing on which most of us can agree: the fraud factor, at least, ought to be eliminated from government programs.
The cheaters among us - a minority, one hopes - might not agree with that statement because the depredations of the cheaters put billions of our dollars into their pockets every year. But honest taxpayers will cheer lustily when the Justice Department begins to send people to jail for stealing our money.
The burden of paying for so many spending programs would be easier to bear if we were at least getting a dollar's worth of benefits out of each dollar that's taken out of our pay.