Your Money for This?

After Hurricane Katrina swallowed up New Orleans, people demanded to know why the federal government had been shortchanging Louisiana. Where

After Hurricane Katrina swallowed up New Orleans, people demanded to know why the federal government had been shortchanging Louisiana. Where was the funding this vulnerable state needed to stave off disaster? Well, it turns out Louisiana was getting lots of taxpayer dollars, hundreds of millions more than many other states. The big problem was not the amount of money going to Louisiana, but how it was all being spent. Enough sure wasn’t earmarked for New Orleans’ levees.

The sad truth is that our tax dollars are often wasted. Sometimes the misspent amounts are huge, sometimes fairly small. Their impact is rarely on the scale of Katrina, thank goodness, but at a time of strained budgets and huge deficits, every example of waste and abuse is an outrage.

Bridge to Nowhere
You’re probably seething at how much it costs now to fill up your car’s gas tank. Well, get this. Part of the tax on every gallon of gas is helping to pay for prize pork in Alaska. Political pork, that is, in the form of a hugely expensive, state-of-the-art bridge that connects, well, not much of anything.

This year, in the small fishing village (and cruise-ship stop) of Ketchikan, Alaska, Rep. Don Young, the state’s only U.S. Congressman since 1973, vacuumed up nearly half a billion dollars for new Alaskan bridges that will serve just several thousand people.

Within the huge six-year $286.5 billion highway bill that President Bush signed in August, Young procured some $454 million. He can do that because he is the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and because he apparently doesn’t care that he’s robbing U.S. taxpayers to pay for unnecessary projects.

One of the Alaskan bridges being constructed is a $223 million edifice that will connect Ketchikan (pop. 14,000) to Gravina Island (pop. 50). But this bridge isn’t just a simple connective link; it is an architectural feat rivaling some of America’s most renowned bridges. The Ketchikan-Gravina Island bridge is designed to be slightly shorter than the Golden Gate Bridge, and fully 200 feet above water at its apex (the better for cruise ships to pass underneath).

The preposterous “need” for the bridge is that the airport serving Ketchikan is situated on Gravina Island. However, residents have easily crossed the Tongass Narrows in a mere seven minutes by ferry for more than three decades. Not only is the ferry quick and cost-effective, it connects residents to an airport with fewer than ten commercial flights per day.

In the annals of odious oinkmanship, Young has earned a special place in hog heaven. The Republican Congressman even went so far as to name the bill in honor of his wife and include a provision that one of the Alaskan bridges be named “Don Young’s Way.” Young is so unrepentant that he actually bragged about the bill and his procurement prowess: “I stuffed it like a turkey.”

 The Artful Dodger
Five years ago, when city officials in Livermore, California, needed an artist to create a unique mosaic for the entrance to its new library, they turned to Maria Alquilar. An artist now based in Miami, she had completed successful projects for other cities, and agreed to the job for a cool $40,000. It took a year, but Alquilar finished her work of art: a colorful 18-foot mosaic, the centerpiece of which is a tree of life surrounded by icons representing history, art, literature and science — and which contains 175 names and cultural references.

Everything seemed to be fine at first — until shortly after the library’s opening, when astute citizens realized that the mosaic contained 11 misspelled words. Adding insult to injury, among those misspelled words were some famous names, like “Eistein” (Einstein) and “Shakespere” (Shakespeare).

All the names and words of the mosaic had been spelled correctly in the sketches Alquilar had prepared. So was she just sloppy when she was completing the mosaic? She admitted to The San Francisco Chronicle that she had noticed that “Einstein” was misspelled but decided to ignore the gaffe. “I just wasn’t concerned,” she said. “None of us are particularly good spellers anymore because of computers.” Ah, yes, the old “spell-check defense,” just what every library wants to hear.

Unfortunately, California state law forbids city officials from changing installed public art without the artist’s consent. And Alquilar, upset with angry e-mails and criticism, at first refused to fix it, citing artistic license. Then the embarrassed and hamstrung city officials offered her $6,000 (on top of her original $40,000 paycheck), plus travel expenses, to come back and fix the errors. Alquilar finally took the money, returned to Livermore in August (15 months after the opening), and corrected the spelling mistakes.

Maybe Alquilar thought it was all much ado about nothing, but it does not take an Einstein to know that the entrance to a library, which serves as the symbolic center of a community’s quest for literacy, should set a letter-perfect example. Alquilar, being a well-educated former schoolteacher, should have known that. Unfortunately, after local taxpayers coughed up another six grand for her, Alquilar’s lesson may be that it pays to misspell.

Flying Blind
The Department of Defense may know a lot about weapons systems, but apparently it is not comprised of financial wizards. Over a handful of years, the DOD has managed to spend an estimated $100 million and may have even spent as much as a quarter billion dollars of hard-earned taxpayer funds on airline tickets for its employees — airline tickets that nobody actually used.

“Imagine if you purchased a fully refundable airline ticket for $600 or $700 and didn’t use it. Would you just put it in your dresser drawer and forget about it?” asks Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. “Of course not. That would be like dumping your money down the drain. Well, that’s just what the Department of Defense has done, except it has done it many times over, with millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money.”

When the Government Accountability Office took a closer look at the issue, it found that “the DOD was not aware of this problem before our audit and did not maintain data on unused tickets.” So the GAO actually had to ask the commercial airlines themselves (American, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways) to provide what information they had on DOD tickets.

Using the data from the airlines, the GAO found that the DOD had not received refunds for at least 139,000 totally or partially unused tickets issued in fiscal years 2001 and 2002. That included, for example, an $8,100 business-class ticket from Atlanta, Georgia, to Muscat, Oman, as well as a $9,800 business-class ticket from Washington, D.C., to Canberra, Australia. By extrapolation, the GAO considered it a “conservative” estimate that at least $100 million in unclaimed refunds remained for tickets purchased from 1997 to 2003.

But the fleecing doesn’t stop there. A related GAO investigation revealed that the Defense Department travel system is rife with fraud. In one case, a high-ranking DOD official claimed a reimbursement of $9,700 for 13 airline tickets for which he never paid. He contended he didn’t notice that nearly $10,000 had been added to his bank account. A Navy seaman used DOD travel credit accounts over a six-month period to buy 70 tickets at a cost of $60,000, which he then used or resold at discounted rates to friends and family.

Unfortunately, at this point, tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been thrown away during a time of high deficits and a war on terrorism — when soldiers have died in Iraq for lack of adequate body and vehicle armor. “Every dollar wasted by the Pentagon is a dollar that could be spent on the war against terrorism,” says Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Senator Grassley concurs: “It’s outrageous, and the fact that the Defense Department didn’t even know it was wasting this money is even worse than $100 million down a rat hole.”

Sheesh. After emptying our wallets for so many dubious projects, you’d think the U.S. government would at least say thank you.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest