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See misuse of Oklahoma's $2.6B stimulus? Call FBI

See misuse of Oklahoma's $2.6B stimulus? Call FBI

By TIM TALLEY, The Associated Press


OKLAHOMA CITY - Top law enforcement officials said Wednesday that they -- and Oklahoma taxpayers -- won't tolerate fraudulent spending of the state's $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money, so they're launching a toll-free number for citizens to report abuse.

U.S. Attorney John C. Richter, joined by several state and federal officials, said the unprecedented amount of federal cash also brings the potential for wasteful spending or fraud in how state agencies and contractors spend the money.

"There's always a possibility that somebody is going to stick their finger in the pot," said Richter, of Oklahoma City. His counterpart in Muskogee, U.S. Attorney Sheldon Sperling, added: "This is in effect a statewide neighborhood watch."

Wasting just 1 percent of the stimulus package would deprive taxpayers of $26 million in federal dollars, said U.S. Attorney David O'Melia of Tulsa.

Citizens can anonymously call the hot line, 877-259-7337, if they suspect wrongdoing. Richter said the most likely offense stemming from stimulus money abuse would be embezzlement. Officials said they have not received tips alleging wasteful spending or abuse so far.

Oklahoma is still receiving its share of federal economic stimulus dollars, most of which will be dedicated to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education.

Most of health care's $900 million will help Medicaid, while education programs will benefit from $300 million.

Oklahoma received $465 million for road and bridge improvements and other transportation projects. Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley on Wednesday praised transportation officials for the way they have accounted for $352 million spent on projects so far.

State auditors have been tracking the federal cash since it started coming into Oklahoma, said state Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage. Auditors visit state agencies to track how money is being spent.

James Finch, the state's top FBI agent, said the hot line will be manned by FBI agents and callers will not be required to identify themselves.

"Large sums of money seem to tempt people to do things," Finch said.

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