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Recovery Redacted

By Christopher Flavelle/ProPublica

Back in July, a software company named Smartronix landed an $18 million contract to build a Web site where taxpayers could easily track billions in federal stimulus money. It was just another part of the Obama administration's ongoing effort to bring transparency to stimulus spending, we were told.

But it seems the drive for transparency doesn't cover the contract itself.

After weeks of prodding by ProPublica and other organizations, the General Services Administration released copies of the contract and related documents that are so heavily blacked out they are virtually worthless.

Don't believe us? Take a look.

ProPublica sought the contract under the Freedom of Information Act to find out what kind of site Smartronix planned to build and to assess whether it justified the cost, which Republican critics of the stimulus plan called "unreal."

Ed Pound, the director of communications for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, defended the redactions as "legitimate." The Web site Smartronix is to build will replace, the existing stimulus Web portal run by the transparency board.

"I'm not concerned about whether journalists are concerned about this," Pound said. "We have been very transparent."

The GSA declined to comment, but said in its response to ProPublica's FOIA request that such redactions were allowed if material "involves substantial risk of competitive injury" to a contractor.

But the blacked-out information includes material that seems harmless to the company, such as the names and backgrounds of key personnel and the number of visitors expected by the site during traffic spikes.

Some sections of the contract were redacted in their entirety. They include:

* the project's management structure;
* something called the "Strategic Advisory Council";
* quality assurance procedures;
* five pages on user experience;
* site navigation;
* four unidentified pages on which everything, even section headings, have been redacted;
* every single piece of information in the document's pricing table, including function, vendor, model, part ID, detail and quantity;
* the contract's warranty agreement.

In all, 25 pages of a 59-page technical proposal - the main document in the package - were redacted completely. Of the remaining pages, 14 had half or more of their content blacked out.

The secrecy drew criticism from government transparency watchdogs.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, noted that information labeled "contractor proposed deliverables" had been completely redacted.

"I think it's on the one hand funny, but on the other hand frightening," said Dalglish. "How are you going to keep these people's feet to the fire? You can't evaluate whether or not they delivered on the contract unless you know what they promised to deliver. That's just nuts."

Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, agreed. "It's difficult to make an accurate comparison with any other potential services when you can't even see what the rates are for different types of programming services and job functions," he said. "Sure, you get the overall number, but could there be a better deal out there? We don't know."

A spokeswoman for Smartronix, headquartered in Maryland, confirmed that the company was given the chance to propose redactions in the documents, as allowed by the Freedom of Information Act.

However, Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, faulted the GSA for allowing the documents to be redacted so extensively.

"The government should have come back at the redaction and said, 'Oh, for the love of God, nobody can tell anything from what you've redacted here,'" said Davis. "If you're going to create a system designed ostensibly to provide greater transparency around a piece of the federal government, it would certainly be a great start to provide some transparency in the contract itself."

Clay Johnson, the director of the Sunlight Labs project at the Sunlight Foundation, called the level of redaction in the documents remarkable.

"I think the people have a right to know what their money is being spent on," he said. "We still don't really know what the government's buying here, other than that it's a Web site."

The criticism from the Sunlight Foundation is notable. Smartronix says in its proposal that it has "engaged the Sunlight Foundation as advisers on government transparency," adding that the foundation "is willing to advise Team Smartronix on transparency."

Johnson disputed that characterization. He said that while he had spoken with one of Smartronix's subcontractors and agreed to have Sunlight listed as an adviser, he had never spoken with anyone from the company itself and isn't involved in the contract.

"We're willing to advise anybody on transparency," said Johnson.

ProPublica has filed an appeal with the GSA, arguing that the redactions were excessive and requesting that more of the information in the Smartronix documents be released. We'll let you know what it says.


Posted on August 14, 2009

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