A Routine, Run-of-the-Mill Half-Billion-Dollar Corruption Story

It may be Michael Kinsley who first said that the scandal in Washington is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal. Maybe a corollary is that the scandal is what people don’t even notice when it’s exposed. The Washington Post splashed a huge story of corruption across the front page of its Sunday Business section. The pull quote in the center read

A D.C. lawyer and her associates secured $500 million in federal contracts to benefit Alaska native corporations. Less than one percent made it back to Alaska.

And so far this impressive story by Robert O’Harrow Jr. has generated 4 comments, 7 tweets, 11 “likes” on Facebook, and only one other blog post that I can find. Are we so jaded that a full-page investigation of self-dealing and corruption involving affirmative action, small business, defense contracting, and complicated financial maneuvers just doesn’t get our juices flowing? And if one diligent reporter, who obviously spent a lot of time on this story, could find this much fraud by one well-connected contractor, how much could a hundred reporters find? I generally don’t think that “waste, fraud, and abuse” is the key to cutting federal spending; you have to go after the big programs, like transfer payments and military spending. But as Everett Dirksen almost said, $500 million here, $500 million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. So let me just turn the floor over to O’Harrow to tell you what he found:

For years as a lawyer in Washington, Paralee White had helped small and disadvantaged firms break into the federal contracting market.

Then she decided to help herself.

She started a business and was soon making more than $500,000 a year through a contracting program intended to help poor Alaska natives, even though she isn’t an Alaska native.

White also helped her family. She hired her sister and brother, paying them as much as $280,000 a year. She helped her sister’s boyfriend set up his own firm in partnership with Alaska natives. He made more than $500,000 a year.

White’s story offers a look at how Washington insiders can make fortunes from government programs intended to benefit small, disadvantaged and minority entrepreneurs. It also illustrates how government officials who are supposed to keep tabs on these programs often fail to do so.

White’s native partners eventually accused her and her siblings of fraud and self-dealing, saying they were paid more than the rules allowed and hid the transactions from the government. The allegations spilled out in a civil lawsuit in Alaska, and the case was quickly settled.

Although officials at the Small Business Administration say they knew about the dispute, the U.S. government has taken no action.

Over several years, White and her associates landed more than $500 million in construction contracts for the Navy and other Pentagon departments, nearly all of them through an SBA program aimed at boosting Alaska native corporations. But less than 1 percent of that money made it back to the native-owned corporations, a Washington Post investigation found.

Government officials say they were not monitoring the contracts for compliance with the rules to ensure that the natives were doing a significant portion of the work and receiving the correct share of the revenue.

In statements, Navy and Air Force officials said that responsibility fell to the SBA. But SBA spokeswoman Hayley Meadvin said her agency long ago transferred that authority to the Pentagon and other agencies.

White, 59, declined to answer questions about the contracts. In e-mails, she said the questions involve “events several years in the past and I don’t have the files or time to research or reflect on them sufficiently to give you accurate information.”

There’s more, much more. Read it all.