Where is Your Money Going? The Mess at USASpending.Gov

December 31, 2016 |

bd-ts-010217-usspending-cover-smAs the old Irving Berlin song put it, Let’s Start the New Year Right. By looking into something gone wrong.

USASpending.gov launched with a certain amount of brouhaha back in 2007, after the enabling legislation sailed through Congress in the fall of 2006. The bill’s Senate sponsors included the unlikely grouping of Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Barack Obama of Illinois, Tom Carper of Delaware and John McCain of Arizona.

As Republican lawmaker Tom Davis of Virginia noted, “This legislation puts into place a framework that sheds light on the Federal grant process, allowing anyone with access to the Internet the ability to review and search financial assistance rewards. Sunshine, Mr. Speaker, is the best disinfectant.”

So, how is sunshine doing? Not well in the “devil is in the details” department. Let’s illustrate.

The $280 Million that Genomatica Never Got

It might surprise you to learn, for example that according to USASpending.Gov, bioeconomy pioneer Genomatica has received more than $280 million in federal grants and contracts since 2008. Surprising I would imagine to the staff at Genomatica, too, since it’s hogwash of the “messed up database” type.

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Comma-Separated at Birth

Here’s the topline graph from the government on Genomatica’s awards, and you can clearly see the $280+ million that purportedly went to the company. For some reason, there are two different entities here, separated from each other by … wait for it…. a comma.

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Now, let’s look at entity #1, by clicking on the link from the search results. Looks pretty straightforward. Awards of around $7 million, mostly dating to a single award in fiscal 2011 and awards in FY2012 and FY2013. That’s entirely unsurprising for a cutting-edge company doing R&D related to the field of petroleum alternatives, which the government and public is keenly interested in.

In fact, we reported on most of it, here:

Genomatica, Inc. (up to $5.0 million): This project will deliver an engineered organism and optimized fermentation process to enable the conversion of cellulosic sugars to the valuable industrial chemical, 1,4-butanediol (BDO). Such technology will enhance the commercial profitability of integrated biorefineries by enabling co-production of high-volume fuels and the higher-margin commodity chemical, BDO.

But what about entity #2, Genomatica Sans Comma? USASpending.Gov assigns nearly the whole of the $280+ million attributed to Genomatica to this entity. Let’s drill down.

Right away, we see an anomaly. If you notice in the second figure above, Genomatica Sans Comma was recorded as having no grant activity since 2009, but the first chart actually shows grants in fiscal 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

About the $285 Million that Never Was, or Rather Was for Someone Else

Let’s click on 2008 and that Bush-era, $285 million whopper. Little did we know that the GOP loved renewable chemicals so fiercely, way back then. In actuality, here’s the grant. It goes to the Indiana Department of Transportation, a total of 1923 different misapplied transactions that end up in the Genomatica bucket.

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Hmm. Let’s look at 2009’s record for Genomatica Sans Comma grants. Oops, another error. This one went to  the University of Southern California.

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And what about 2010? Oops, another goof. This one is actually Symphony Acoustics of New Mexico, and here you can see it.

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A New Phenomenon in Government: The Negative Grant

But wait, there’s more, and it gets worse. Here’s the drill down for 2011. This is a grant of Minus $155,183 to the University of California.

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Which raises three questions.

1. How exactly do you get a negative grant, anyway? Where does that money go?

2. On the “we’re pretty sure” basis that the University of California received a positive flow of dollars from the US government in FY 2011, where’s the rest of the money?

3. Why is this mixed up with Genomatica Sans Comma?

The Undisclosed Recipient

But wait, there’s more, and it gets worse. Let’s look at the drill down page for 2012 to see who received money attributed to poor old Genomatica Sans Comma. And here you are, $403,994 awarded to “Undisclosed Recipient” in Anchorage, Alaska in 57 different transactions.

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Which raises three more questions.

1. Who exactly is Undisclosed Recipient and can you see Russia from their backyard?

2. Why is Undisclosed Recipient’s award being attributed to Genomatica Sans Comma?

3. Why spend taxpayer dollars on a website intended to shed “light on the Federal grant process,” and then not name the recipient of the grant? What’s the point?

Gateway: The Project So Secret that We Can’t Tell You What It Is

So, we look for relief to fiscal year 2013., But we won’t find any. Here’s another “Undisclosed Recipient”,  this one from the ironically named Gateway, Colorado. Twelve transactions totaling $87,030 to ‘we-don’t-know-who for we-r’re-not-told-what. Bundled under the wrong company’s wrong account, Genomatica Sans Comma.

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Now, you probably are thinking, it makes sense not to disclose recipients working on super-secret projects in known hotbeds of technology. Maybe these are the guys working on nuclear codes.

So, it might interest you to learn that Gateway, Colorado is an unincorporated community with a population of 25, in Mesa County, Colorado whose primary claim to fame is the Gateway Canyons Resort and Auto Museum, home to one of the best-loved classic car collections in the country.  One thing, though. Gateway is part of Colorado’s uranium belt. So that’s something that might pick up R&D support. At one point, Energy Fuels applied for a permit to rehabilitate and begin pilot production at the Torbyn mine.

But we can’t figure what this has to do with Genomatica, or why we have 12 transactions and why we can’t disclose the recipient. In total, the US government transferred more than $3,000 per resident of the community. And don’t think of it as a big jobs boost. Gateway’s job base, according to BestPlaces.net, dropped 1.37 percent in their most recent survey (although it’s hard for The Digest to figure how a town of 25 souls could lose 1.37 percent of its job base).

More Undisclosed Recipients of the Mis-Coded Kind

By now, I hope you’re not feeling that we should strike up the band with a song of national pride in our database capabilities. But you might be feeling more confident in your thinking about how the US government’s can be having so much trouble with its databases getting hacked.

So let’s move to 2014 in hopes that at least one set of annual transactions are properly coded. Whoops. Here’s $334,625 going once again to an “undisclosed Recipient”, this one in Schoolcraft. Michigan, in a total of 34 different badly assigned transactions. Now, Schoolcraft is like Metropolis compared to Gateway, CO. In total, 1525 souls live there — about 20 miles south of Kalamazoo.

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Now, we’re dying to know what’s so Top Secret in Schoolcraft that the US government, spending millions of your dollars under an act expressly designed to shed light on Federal grants, that we can’t even learn the identity of the recipient. We suspect it’s something entirely mundane and that everyone would support, like co-funding for an improved safety crossing. It’s the database which is more likely to be messed up, not the project which we are together supporting through the tax system.

So, there you have it. Six years of grants totaling almost $300 million. Every one of them misapplied to Genomatica, although you’d hardly notice it because they’re misapplied, rather, to Genomatica Sans Comma. Three to “undisclosed recipients”, one of those credited to a town with 25 people.

And $15 million spent on this transparency effort between 2007 and 2011. And who knows exactly how much since. Because the money awarded by the government to manage this effort at disclosure….wait for it…yes, is disclosed somewhere else.

Two conclusions we can definitively draw.

1. Genomatica is not getting anywhere near the kind of public support that the US Government says it is.

2. The government’s effort at “disinfecting with sunshine” is really fouled up. You might wonder why we’re putting nearly $4 million into managing and publishing this database. It’s an area The Digest knows something about, since this very publication is based around a dynamic MySQL database. The US government’s annual budget for managing this fiasco would keep the Digest, or any other database operation serving tens of thousands of files to millions of readers, operating for more than 100 years. Suggesting that, in addition to not knowing how to run a database, our friends in DC don’t have a clue what basic database IT really costs. Sigh.

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