Republicans decry stimulus funds for iPods, cellphones


Stimulus money is going toward iPods for high school students in Utah, cellphones for smokers trying to quit in Washington and advertising devoted to the promotion of … the stimulus.

The findings are part of a 74-page report put out by a pair of Republican senators who contend the $862-billion program is fraught with needless spending.

“There is no question job creation should be a national priority, but torrential, misdirected government spending is not the way to do it,” reads the introduction, signed by Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona.

The report is the third in a series that Republicans have written, spotlighting what they say is a dubious use of stimulus money. Called “Summertime Blues,” the latest report singles out 100 separate projects. It is scheduled to be released Tuesday.

Though the projects are a fraction of the total cost of the stimulus, Republicans say they demonstrate misguided priorities that have created too few jobs.

Few government programs have touched off as much partisan skirmishing as the stimulus. The Obama administration insists the program has been a success, helping stave off a full-fledged economic depression while creating or saving about 3 million jobs.

Economists have also vouched for the stimulus. Last week, economists Mark Zandi and Alan Blinder issued a report showing that the stimulus and other steps taken over the last two years prevented a far more severe economic downturn.

The White House said the report was marred by mistakes. The report claims, for example, that $11,000 in stimulus funds paid for new signs and awnings in Elyria, Ohio, but the money did not come from the stimulus, the White House said Monday. Coburn’s office said Monday it had removed that example from the final report.

“We’ll look into each of their claims and take action if any have merit, but with more than 70,000 Recovery Act projects underway, any misguided project is just a small fraction of tens of thousands coast to coast that are rebuilding America and putting people to work,” said Elizabeth Oxhorn, a White House spokeswoman.

The report questions a decision to spend $1 million on iPod Touch devices for 1,600 students at Kearns High School in Kearns, Utah. No jobs will be created. The school will load the iPods with educational applications that teachers hope will motivate students. Such applications include guides to identify trees, leaves and bird calls. Students will get to keep the devices if they meet graduation requirements, a school district spokesman said.

“It’s about getting something in the hands of students where they’ll be interested in participating in the educational process,” said the spokesman, Ben Horsley.

A White House official defended the iPod program, saying, “This program is actually an example of a school using cutting-edge technology to enhance learning, while providing cost-effective Internet access to students for research.”

Another project singled out in the report is a $498,000 grant to a unit of the American Legacy Foundation, which will provide BlackBerry Curve smart phones to Washington residents trying to quit smoking. The predominately low-income smokers who receive the phones may call a hotline or use the phones’ software capabilities to help with their addiction. Two jobs will be created directly by the program, a spokesman said.

In several cases, stimulus money went toward the promotion and study of the stimulus program, at a cost of millions of dollars.

A small Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in health communications received $363,760 to tout the National Institutes of Health stimulus spending efforts and highlight success stories.

The funding was used to help develop stories on an NIH Web page headlined, “NIH and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” The page includes a list of stimulus-funded research projects, profiles of scientific researchers and articles with titles such as “Stimulus Money Puts Students at the Forefront of Research” and “Stimulus Helps Fund Science Experience for Young Women.”

The senators also drew attention to $193,956 in grants to a pair of Texas universities to study how the stimulus is received by the public. The grants were issued through the National Science Foundation.

“It would probably be a safe bet that if citizens knew that stimulus funds were being used to fund research on their perception on the stimulus, it would sway them in a negative direction,” the report reads.

Officials at the universities defended the programs.

With so many experts focusing on the stimulus’ economic effects, said Rick Wilson, a professor of political science directing the project at Rice University, he decided it would be worthwhile to consider the social and political implications as well. Researchers visited two towns in Texas where some residents expected to be awash in stimulus dollars but saw that the funds amounted to only a trickle.

Tom Hamburger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.