House Republicans and Democrats agreed last week that the Department of Education’s accounting records should be examined more closely following recent incidents that point to fraud and abuse.
Members of the Education and the Workforce Committee passed, by voice vote, a bill that would require the comptroller general to investigate the agency’s financial records. Those records have come under fire recently after portions of two audits were deemed incomplete and a contractor admitted defrauding the agency of nearly $1 million.(“Federal Contractor Pleads Guilty to Theft, Conspiracy,” May 17, 2000.)
The committee also approved a bill that attempts to clarify amendments to the 1998 revisions to the Higher Education Act. The legislation includes language that would require colleges to notify students of a federal law that cuts off aid to those convicted of drug-related offenses while enrolled in college.
The Education Department legislation was sponsored by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the subcommittee on education oversight and investigations. He has been a longtime critic of the department. The bill would order the comptroller general to conduct a comprehensive fraud audit on portions of the Education Department’s budget that seem to be most susceptible to fraud and abuse.
While Mr. Hoekstra’s accusations have been somewhat controversial among Democrats, several acknowledged that there should be an investigation into the agency’s recordkeeping. The bill was quickly passed by voice vote with little debate.
At a Budget Committee hearing the previous day, Mr. Hoekstra, who leads a special task force on education issues, called several witnesses who had testified at two earlier hearings. Rep. Hoekstra also brought up several recent allegations, including the case of the contractor who claimed he had been encouraged by an Education Department employee to lie about overtime and buy high-tech equipment at the agency’s expense.
Mr. Hoekstra reiterated allegations that the department has made expensive administrative mistakes, such as giving out duplicate grants and giving $4 million in gifted and talented fellowships to students who were chosen as alternates to the winners.
Erica Lepping, the spokeswoman for Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, disputed those claims. In rare instances, she said, a duplicate grant is sent out as a result of human error, but that money is quickly refunded.
An Education Department contractor this year mistakenly sent a letter to the alternates for the fellowships, and the department decided to give them awards as well, Ms. Lepping said. But it turned out that so many winners and alternates declined the awards that the department did not have to spend any additional funds.
But some Democrats agreed to the need to look into the matter.
“There is proof that the department was defrauded,” said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. “We have to set as high standards for ourselves and the department as we do for teachers.”
The future of the bill is uncertain. The House had passed a similar measure earlier this year as an amendment to a supplemental appropriations bill that was never adopted.
So far, though, no counterpart legislation has been introduced in the Senate, and no members there have shown much interest in the issue, said Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
The House committee last week also passed a measure that would help ensure that college students are aware that they could lose federal financial aid if they are convicted of a drug-related offense. The panel, however, stopped short of overturning the provision in the HEA amendments.
The panel sought to clarify a provision in the current law last week that states that students convicted of any drug-related charge while receiving student loans forfeit the federal aid. The provision recently caused concern when about 306,000 students were notified by the Department of Education that they would be ineligible for financial aid because they had failed to answer a question on the application form about previous drug convictions.
The committee approved an amendment by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that would require higher education institutions to provide every student seeking aid with a written notice that clearly explains the penalties. Mr. Miller said he was concerned that the law was putting up a huge barrier for minority and other students who were trying to put their lives back together and wouldn’t have other sources for tuition aid.
But the committee strongly defeated, 30-16, a measure that would have erased the provision from the law.
“My intent is to help students stay in school and get rid of their habit,” said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the sponsor of the original provision that was added to the 1998 Higher Education Act amendments.
But some Democrats argued that the provision unfairly hurts students who make a one-time mistake. And Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., joked that, “if this [amendment] were to include illegal alcohol abuse, the colleges would clear out.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as House Panel Passes Bill To Probe Ed. Spending