Transparency, Contract Award Questioned

Published November 20, 2009

As a U.S. senator, Barack Obama cosponsored the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, designed to help Americans track where and how their tax dollars are spent.

Now, many Americans are wondering why President Obama’s Web site, designed to track nearly $800 billion in stimulus funds, lacks even basic transparency.

A small, relatively unknown contractor from southern Maryland was awarded an $18 million contract this summer to revamp, which has been plagued by a clunky interface and vague information about projects funded by the $787 billion stimulus bill passed earlier this year.

Executives and employees of Smartronix, the company that won the contract, have donated $19,000 to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), raising questions about whether a political connection, and not competence, was the determining factor in getting the lucrative job.

Smartronix has received $9.5 million to overhaul and another $8.5 million to maintain the site through 2014.

Critics Howl

Charles Lollar, the Charles County Republican Central Committee chairman in Maryland, noted an appearance of impropriety in the connection between Smartronix and Hoyer.

“I am disappointed but not surprised,” Lollar said. “Congressman Hoyer displays a level of arrogance that has become all too common in our government. We must ensure that the entire process is transparent, both before and after the bidding process.”

Pro Publica, a nonprofit news organization, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the Smartronix contract and its supporting documentation. What the administration released, however, contained massive redactions of the key provisions.

‘Funny and Frightening’

“I think on the one hand it’s funny, but on the other hand frightening,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“How are you going to keep these people’s feet to the fire? You can’t evaluate whether or not they delivered on the contract unless you know what they promised to deliver. That’s just nuts,” Dalglish said.

Ellen Sauerbrey, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates and twice a failed Republican candidate for governor, likewise doubts the Smartronix/Hoyer connection is a coincidence.

“How ironic,” Sauerbrey said in a statement. “A company that is a major donor to the Democrat Party gets a contract to redesign a Web site. The Web site is to provide transparency in the expenditure of taxpayer dollars for the stimulus, but the details of the fat and controversial contract are anything but transparent.”

‘Right to Be Disgusted’

Clay Johnson, director of the Sunlight Labs project at the Washington, DC-based Sunlight Foundation, said the lack of transparency in is not acceptable.

“I think the people have a right to know what their money is being spent on,” Johnson said. “We still don’t really know what the government’s buying here, other than that it’s a Web site.”

“Citizens have every right to be disgusted when they cannot see the content of bills before they are voted on or the details of contracts that have been awarded,” Sauerbrey said. “The government now in power may prove to be the least transparent ever, with its unaccountable czars, vapor bills, and secretive contracts. The problems with this contract can’t be fixed, but people can demand accountability on Election Day.”

“It is absolutely un-American and unconstitutional for this type of bidding process to take place,” Lollar said. “Our Founding Fathers never intended for the government to get so big or the public trust to be an issue.”

Troy Stouffer ( [email protected]) writes from Baltimore.