Published Online: August 11, 2004
Published in Print: August 11, 2004, as Federal File

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Summer of Love

Turn down millions of federal dollars and you just might become the toast of conservatives, even if you hail from a liberal bastion.

That’s what Arlene Ackerman, the San Francisco superintendent of schools, found when she was celebrated as a hero last month at a congressional hearing on fraud in the federal E-rate program.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations lauded Ms. Ackerman for rejecting nearly $50 million in federal telecommunications grants and initiating a probe that uncovered a bid-rigging conspiracy among district officials, consultants, and contractors.

In June, the main contractor on the project, a unit of NEC America Inc., pleaded guilty to several criminal and civil charges and agreed to pay $20.6 million in federal penalties. Related investigations continue in several other states. ("Company Pleads Guilty to E-Rate Abuses," June 9, 2004.)

"Your forthrightness is probably going to save the U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars," Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, the full committee chairman, told Ms. Ackerman at the hearing. A critic of the E-rate, Mr. Barton said Congress would soon overhaul the program that provides telecommunications subsidies to schools and libraries.

"The program certainly needs to be reformed," said Ms. Ackerman, testifying by video hookup from San Francisco, "but it’s a good program, and where some see the glass half empty, I see it as half full."

Mr. Barton questioned whether an average superintendent would have the courage to reject a suspect E-rate grant of millions of dollars, noting that Ms. Ackerman had been criticized at the time for doing so.

"Thank God for groups like San Francisco that are self-enforcing, but I don’t see any real effort at the federal level to apportion the amount that goes out each year," Mr. Barton said.

He seemed amused to be praising a city that is not often embraced by conservatives, and he suggested that Ms. Ackerman might come to work in Texas—a suggestion she politely declined.

The San Francisco city attorney’s office, which helped in the investigation, was also praised, leading someone to suggest that Mr. Barton pose with Dennis J. Herrera, a Democrat who heads the office, for photos to be used in their respective election campaigns, an idea that elicited chuckles right and left.

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 23, Issue 44, Page 30

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