(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Department of Transportation imposed strict guidelines for the placement, size, and visibility of signs promoting the $862-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), popularly known as the economic stimulus bill, according to a review by DOT’s inspector general released on Thursday.
Some Republican congressman say the signs amount to taxpayer-funded propaganda for the stimulus package.
Two DOT agencies--transit and rail--initially required that stimulus-funded projects post ARRA signs, but now the DOT “strongly encourages” the use of such signs, the IG review says. The IG review came in response to questions by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, about the cost and policies regarding the Recovery Act signs.
Guidelines on the signs from six different DOT agencies focus heavily on publicity.
Most of the guidelines call for “economic recovery signs [to] be placed where they can be easily identified with the corresponding projects,” while the Federal Aviation Administration says “the signs should be solely used to publicize ARRA funding of an airport project,” according to the IG report.
DOT spokesman Bill Adams stressed that the Transportation Department as a whole never required use of signs, only the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) did.
“Signs for highway projects were never required,” Adams told CNSNews.com on Thursday in a written response to questions. “Transit agencies and Amtrak were initially required to post signs on projects, but out of more than 15,000 projects approved to date, fewer than 300 transit facility contracts were affected before the requirement was eliminated.”
The Federal Railroad Administration guidance states, “Grantees may elect to have a secondary project sign which identifies other project partners” but also says, “such secondary signs should be smaller and less prominent than ARRA Project Sign.”
Adams said, “FRA did not require secondary signage or stickers, but requested that the size and placement of any signs be consistent with guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget or the Department of Transportation and approved by the FRA.”
The railroad agency also states that “ARRA Project Signs should be located at the project site so as to maximize their visibility to rail passengers approaching the site,” and says, “a sign that is most likely to be seen by pedestrians approaching a project site (e.g. station) may be smaller than that for a project that is most likely to be viewed by individuals approaching the site in a vehicle.”
The FRA guidance further states that the signs “should take the form of a decal, no smaller than 12 inches measured diagonally. For passenger rail cars, such decals should be placed so as to be visible to every passenger entering the car,” according to the IG report.
The DOT review is the most recent inspector-eneral analysis about how economic stimulus money is being used to promote the Recovery Act. Inspectors-general are the internal watchdogs inside federal agencies.
A different review by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Commerce said that signs for stimulus-funded projects are required and that the policy was not scaled back. A separate review by the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that divisions of HUD required ARRA signage, but agency-wide guidelines scaled that back to just “encouraging” recipients to post the signs. (See earlier story)
But these agencies did not have such detailed and strict guidance as the DOT provided for grantees, based on the IG analysis. Nor did these agencies go into such detail to express the need for visibility and publicity.
Initially, the DOT cited a directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget as the basis for requirements.
“DOT noted that OMB initial government-wide guidance on implementing ARRA established requirements intended to meet crucial accountability objectives, including that ‘the uses of all funds are transparent to the public, and the public benefits of these funds are reported clearly, accurately, and in a timely manner,’” the IG review said.
CNSNews.com reported this week that a White House directive calls for the use of signs for recovery act projects. “Projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will bear a newly-designed emblem,” said the directive. “The emblem is a symbol of President Obama’s commitment to the American people to invest their tax dollars wisely to put Americans back to work.”
The Federal Transit Administration issued signage guidelines on April 7, 2009, which said “the recipient agrees to identify projects supported by FTA by attaching the appropriate emblems as the Federal Government may require,” the IG report says.
On Aug. 14, 2009, FTA officials said they changed the policy to encourage, rather than require, recipients to post signs.
The IG review said the FRA originally stated the following: “The grantee shall post a sign at all fixed project locations at the most publicly accessible location and a plaque in all purchased or rehabilitated rail cars announcing that the project or equipment was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration with funds provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
The IG review says, “According to officials, this language was adopted from the FRA March 19, 2009, grant agreement with Amtrak, and that the agreement language was based on ARRA guidance available at that time.”
Rep. Issa’s staff is seeking more information about signs and is asking citizens to send pictures of signs to firstname.lastname@example.org, so he can establish an interactive map.
“Despite eliminating requirements to post signs, Department of Transportation agencies are still improperly focused on pushing projects to display signs crediting President Obama and the so-called ‘stimulus’ for earmarked funding handouts,” Issa said in a statement. “The Administration’s obsession with using taxpayer money to get political credit for projects adds unnecessary expenses and bureaucracy to a spending package that’s failing to spur promised job creation in the private sector.”
Adams, the DOT spokesman, repeated the Obama administration’s previous claims that posting the signs is a matter of transparency. “The Department of Transportation continues to believe that taxpayers have the right to know where their Recovery Act dollars are being spent,” Adams said.
On Sept. 1, the Recovery Act and Transparency Board plans to issue a report stating how much money from the entire package was spent on signs promoting the legislation. In one case, at Dulles Airport in Virginia, a single sign cost $10,000. Costs vary, Adams said, pointing out that Tennessee reported spending $50 for a single sign.
A Transportation Department spokesperson could not be reached for comment at press time.
The Republican staff of the House Oversight Committee released a report this week stating that the signs and other expenditures promoting the new health care law, art grants, and other expenditures by the Obama administration amount to taxpayer-subsidized propaganda.
Issa has said the use of tax dollars for these purposes could be illegal.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that appropriations law forbids public relations activity that includes “self-aggrandizement” of an agency, its personnel, or activities; something “purely partisans in nature” that is “designed to aid a political party or candidate;” or “covert propaganda” that does not reveal that government expenditures produced the messages, according to a report released this week by the Republican staff on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The report cites criminal statute, 18 U.S.C Section 1913, which prohibits lobbying with government funds.
“No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter or other device” to influence a public official, the statute says.
Another statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 7321 says, “Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.”
Further, the committee report says propaganda could be a violation of the Hatch Act, which places restrictions on political activity by public officials and public agencies.
Issa has asked the GAO to investigate what the Republican staff report considers propaganda by the Obama administration, including signs promoting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.