Head Start Scandal on Par With ACORN's Antics

Two role-playing investigators with bogus documents and a hidden camera walked into Head Start centers across the country to expose fraud and corruption. They got more than they had bargained for, discovering a pattern of rule-bending fraud so shocking it prompted a briefing for President Obama.

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Is this the latest James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles sting operation?

Nope. It was the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which used tactics remarkably similar to O’Keefe and Giles, sans the pimp and prostitute costumes.

GAO’s undercover investigation revealed a common practice among Head Start employees: the deliberate disregard -- or even outright falsification -- of income documentation to pad enrollment. “Now you see it, now you don’t,” said a Head Start employee in New Jersey who “disappeared” $23,000 worth of income for one applicant so that his fictitious child could be enrolled. GAO found Head Start programs were more than willing to help its investigators falsify applications at eight of the 15 centers it visited.

The duo that destroyed ACORN last year caught flak from liberals for their undercover tactics. Media critic Eric Alterman of the Center for American Progress called their investigation “dishonest.” He wrote that O’Keefe and Giles “ignore[d] the rules of honest information gathering and reporting.”

In reality, O’Keefe and Giles’ investigative prowess turned the ACORN story into a national episode of corruption at a government-funded organization. Turns out GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, is using essentially the same tactics to expose malfeasance.



One major difference: the level of media attention for ACORN’s scandal compared to Head Start’s corruption. Was it simply the lack of a pimp or prostitute? Or was it a deliberate attempt on the part of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats to sweep the story under the rug?

Last week’s congressional hearing was convened by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) on what was dubbed “Super Tuesday” for the host of contested primary elections dominating the news. Just two Republicans showed up because others hadn’t arrived in Washington yet. The top Republican on the education committee couldn’t make it back in time because he was filing for re-election in Minnesota.

While the scandal drew coverage from the New York Times and Washington Post, those stories were buried on pages 18 and 17, respectively.

Arguably, the Head Start scandal deserved front-page headlines on newspapers across America last week. Outrage over ACORN centered on the group’s taxpayer funding. The total amount of federal funds that flowed to ACORN was about $53 million dating to 1994.

Head Start, a Great Society program created in 1965 for low-income children, received $9 billion -- yes, billion -- in appropriations and stimulus funding last year alone. Over the lifetime of the program, it has cost taxpayers more than $150 billion.

There are more than 3,300 Head Start programs operating in America, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. A government-funded impact study criticized the effectiveness of the program earlier this year. Given the cost of the program and the group of people it primarily serves, Head Start deserves some much-needed scrutiny.

Miller’s hearing was designed to do that. Or was it?

Even though the salacious details of the undercover investigation were unearthed in testimony before Congress, the hearing will actually delay GAO’s final report until July. More importantly, by holding a hearing on a busy news day, Miller intentionally or not avoided any coverage from broadcast media, which were tied up covering the primary elections.

Republicans politely suggested there was something fishy about the timing, especially in light of an ongoing investigation by the Health and Human Services inspector general. “It is vital for Congress to expose and root out this type of waste, fraud, and abuse,” said Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL), “but I do not believe that any of us wishes to jeopardize an ongoing and potentially criminal investigation.”

Head Start certainly escaped harsh press coverage. Will it now avoid more scrutiny from Congress?

Miller, through his spokeswoman, dismissed questions about the timing of his hearing: “Chairman Miller’s obligation is to transparency and accountability, as well as ensuring the integrity of the Head Start program.”

But that didn’t stop his Democratic colleagues from indicating there were bigger fish to fry. “Can you tell me how much money is stolen in Medicare and Medicaid fraud?” asked Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) to the witness from the Department of Health and Human Services. When she didn’t know the answer, Scott replied, “More than the total Head Start budget.”

That’s no reason to ignore a clear-cut case of fraud and abuse. Head Start shouldn’t get off so easy.

Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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