EPA grant dollars bypass bidding, study says

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency has given more than $2 billion to nonprofit groups since 1993, often without competitive bidding, an Associated Press computer analysis found. The agency's internal watchdog says some groups may have received favored treatment.

The grants went to a wide variety of groups including environmental lobbies that sue the agency and senior citizen centers that function like temporary worker agencies.

Among the grants listed in agency documents as awarded to nonprofits:

A $1,500 grant to help a university group create a "solid waste board game" entitled the Can Man Game.

More than $47,000 to help the Seattle Mariners professional baseball team, which had an $80 million payroll last year, develop a recycling program at its new stadium. The money was provided to the team by the grant recipient, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

$150,000 to research the "role of lighting in human performance and productivity."

More than $300,000 over eight years for a "golf and the environment" project to encourage golf courses that rely on pesticides and fertilizers to be more environmentally friendly.

Nearly $100,000 to study how to reduce methane gas emissions from livestock in the Ukraine. That was part of millions of dollars in grants that benefited countries outside the United States.

Windfall for elderly

The analysis of EPA grants and grant extensions to nonprofits found that six of the top 10 recipients between 1993 and 2001 weren't environmental groups or researchers, but rather seniors groups that received tens of millions of dollars to hire older Americans as temporary workers for environmental projects. About 1,800 seniors are currently employed under the program.

The AARP Foundation topped the list with $98.5 million, followed by the National Older Worker Career Center at $90.6 million, the National Senior Citizens Education and Research Center at $74 million, the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged at $72 million and the National Association of Hispanic Elderly with $43.9 million.

The grants, created by Congress, cover the workers' pay and benefits as well as the groups' costs for arranging the employment.

Larry Anderson ran the seniors program for AARP until the senior lobby dropped out, and he now works for the Career Center. He said workers 55 and older were recruited for EPA jobs ranging from clerk to scientist, but few earned more than $30,000 a year.

"This allows the EPA to get experienced people while educating their managers on the value of younger people and older people working together," Anderson said.

Many of EPA's grants have been awarded without competition and left to the discretion of agency employees, the agency's internal watchdog has found.

In a scathing report last May, the inspector general said the EPA was unable to justify its award of more than $1 billion in noncompetitive grants in the 2000 fiscal year alone. The figure included awards to nonprofits plus grants to state and local governments.

There were "implications of preferential treatment in the selection of grantees," the report said.

It said EPA officials justified no-bid grants by calling recipients "uniquely qualified." The designation was "based solely on the project officers' beliefs, without any documented proof that no other organizations were able to perform the desired work," the report concluded.

Howard Corcoran, director of the EPA's grants office, said changes are being made to increase competitive bidding beginning Oct. 1. "The agency has become much more sensitive since the report of the need for competition in grants," he said. Corcoran added, however, that some projects with titles that sound trivial to some people in fact are important to protecting the environment.

"I understand pesticides in golf courses are a big problem," Corcoran said, addressing the agency's more than $300,000 in awards for the golf course research.

Some in Congress have become concerned at the growth of grants to nonprofit groups that also lobby federal officials, engage in politics or file lawsuits against the government.

The number of EPA grants to nonprofits more than doubled from $167.8 million in the first year of the Clinton administration in 1993 to nearly $350 million in 2001, George W. Bush's first year, the AP analysis found.

"We've learned that a very small fraction of these grants are ever audited," said Mark Levin, president of the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm. "Most of them are awarded without competition, and with virtually no public notice."

Levin's group sued to obtain the grant records from EPA, and provided them for the computer analysis. Landmark is pursuing litigation at other agencies seeking similar grant records.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a report last year that one problem with EPA grants is that nonprofit groups have been "spending funds for unallowable activities such as lobbying." Despite these concerns, the GAO noted, EPA hardly ever audited nonprofits that got grants.

Funding federal lawsuits

Levin said his group also is concerned that nonprofit recipients could be using grant money to help pay for lawsuits against the government.

The review identified several EPA grants that went to organizations that had filed environmental lawsuits against the government.

For instance, the National Association of Homebuilders, whose research arm received $2 million in grants, sued to eliminate a rule barring developers from excavating in swamps, bogs and marshes without approval.

And the Natural Resources Defense Council, which received $4.9 million in grants, filed lawsuits over arsenic standards for water and pesticide regulations.

Elliott Negin, spokesman for the council, said the grant money cannot be used to sue the agency.

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