The Carolina Journal followed up on its story last week about several bogus zip codes receiving federal stimulus dollars. Turns out, the money has been accounted for, but its the system for keeping track of it that might be bogus.

The Carolina Journal story:Bogus ZIP code update: Real recipients found

$100 million stimulus Web site remains difficult to navigate

By Sara Burrows, Carolina Journal News Service

RALEIGH — After Carolina Journal reported Jan. 11 that the federal government sent 2.5 million stimulus dollars to North Carolina ZIP codes that don’t exist, a spokesman for the government’s own Web site — Recovery.gov — had difficulty showing a reporter how that funding could in fact be identified.

Ed Pound, communications director of the Recovery Accountability and Tranparency Board, which operates the Web site, contacted CJ, claiming the story was “superficial reporting at its worst. A little rudimentary research would have shown you exactly where the money went.”

He explained that the money had all been accounted for. “There is no missing money,” he said. “It didn’t disappear, and it wasn’t stolen.”

The story reported that recipients of the money remained at large, even after using several of the site’s search methods.

A tutorial on the Web site claims

This is the first time the federal government has attempted to provide such expansive accountability and transparency. … Any American citizen should be able to find what they’re looking for on this site. The data is presented in easy to find, easy to sort and easy to use ways.

Pound put this pledge to the test, and came up wanting. Initially, he said recipients of the funding to bogus ZIP codes could be found by searching an Excel document located at the site’s Data Download Center.

“I can walk you through it, step by step, and show you exactly where the money is, but I think you can do it yourself,” he said.

On request, he attempted to replicate the search. After nearly 20 minutes of searching the document, Pound gave up, unable to find the real recipients. “I’m going to have someone research this, because now I want to know,” he said.

The next day he called to say he’d figured it out. From the Recovery.gov home page, he said to click on the link under the map titled Text View of Map of Map Data, click on North Carolina, type in one of the erroneous ZIP codes, and then click “go.”

Entering the unreal ZIP 23854, where $2.1 million reportedly went, results in six contractors that were hired to help construct a building on Camp Lejeune. (The Web site erroneously states that the Marine Corps base, the largest on the East Coast, is in Virginia.) The contractors are located in New Bern, Wilson, Greenville, Greensboro, Jacksonville, and Lumberton — none with ZIP codes similar to 23854. By the government’s own estimates, the contracts created no new jobs.

Using the same method, the genuine recipient of the $367,000 sent reportedly to 27600, another bogus ZIP code, is Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission in Sparta (actual ZIP 28675). The commission is a social-service agency which provides weatherization of homes to low-income families. It also assists with families’ food, clothing, and fuel bills. That grant created no jobs.

East Carolina University was the true recipient of $34,096, slated for 24858, another ZIP code that doesn’t exist. That money was used to research musculoskeletal and connective tissue diseases.

A grant for $63,000 assigned to phony ZIP code 28389 went to either Wayne Futrell Construction and Tile Company in Warsaw or Uplift Cosmetic Surgery, a Charlotte surgical center, depending upon the search method you use.

Pound said only 450 of 131,000 ZIP codes listed on the site are inaccurate. Hundreds of millions of dollars were assigned to those phony ZIP codes.

Pound said the Web site is undergoing improvements. In the future, the system will reject data from recipients who attempt to enter nonexistent ZIP codes. There are no plans, however, to correct retroactively the incorrect ZIP codes now on the site.

When President Obama announced the proposal that would eventually become the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last February, he vowed the stimulus plan would contain “an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability, so that every American will be able to go online and see where and how we’re spending every dime.”

The stimulus bill initially allocated $84 million for the recovery board to set up the Web site, which is directed “to simply and regularly communicate detailed information on how government agencies are planning to use the money, how the stimulus money is actually being used, and how many jobs have been created or saved.” In July, ABC News reported the board spent an additional $18 million upgrading the site.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.