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Monday, April 21, 2008

From Poder magazine, April 2008 (Miami edition)

Pretty good pork

While Republican leaders promise to put an end to pork barrel spending, election rhetoric in South Florida tells another story

By Kirk Nielsen

Here comes Granma,” U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Miami) says mockingly, referring to Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper and me. He is standing amid a swarm of reporters, TV cameras, and John McCain supporters in the ballroom of the Hilton Miami Airport, the night of the Mac’s January 29 Republican primary win. The Mac had just left the stage after a rousing victory speech, as had Diaz-Balart and his brother Lincoln, also a U.S. representative. The Granma crack related to something I had asked McCain about at the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana about a week earlier. Something the Diaz-Balarts care deeply about: Radio and TV Martí.

The Miami-based stations, which beam programming at Cuba, have brought about a half-billion American taxpayer dollars to Miami over the past decade. The money continues to flow, despite consistently bad reviews, not from
Granma or me, but from U.S. government inspectors. It was the fault of Sen. Joe Lieberman (R-CT) that I even raised the question. On the morning of January 17, while campaigning for McCain across the street from Versailles at La Carreta, Lieberman told a group of mostly Cuban-American political activists that the Mac wanted to increase spending on Radio and TV Martí. The U.S. needs to use them more aggressively, he asserted.

Four days later, McCain was holding forth from a podium in a side dining room at Versailles, and suddenly the irony seemed thicker than the scent of bacon and eggs wafting in from the main dining area. The Diaz-Balart brothers stood proudly behind him. “We’ve got stop the pork barrel spending,” McCain said emphatically. I glanced at the press corps seated around me and thought: A radio and TV operation that costs about $40 million in taxpayer money per year and that hardly anybody in Cuba tunes into—how is that not a huge pork barrel? And so, during the news conference after his speech, I asked the Mac how he could justify increasing spending on Radio and TV Martí, given that investigations had repeatedly found evidence of fiscal misfeasance, malfeasance, and possibly fraud.

“That’s not true!” Mario Diaz-Balart shouted from behind McCain, before I had finished my sentence. The Mac waved him off, without turning around, then replied. “I can justify it that I’ll spend anything that’s necessary in the cause of freedom,” Sen. McCain said sternly. “We know what won the Cold War. Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. And there were certain skeptics, such as yourself, about Radio Free Europe and those other means of communication that inspired hope in the people who were living under communist oppression, the same way that Radio Martí inspires hope in people that are living in one of the most brutal oppressive governments in history.”

After the news conference, I sought out Mario Diaz-Balart in the front parking lot for comment. “Ah, the spokesman for the Aruca—” he said, without finishing the sentence. The Aruca group, I suspected he wanted to say. He was referring to AM radio talk show host Francisco Aruca, a longtime critic of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and Radio and TV Martí. I told him I was simply going by what I had read in reports written by U.S. government inspectors. “The reports aren’t what you’re saying, though!” Mario retorted. “They’re actually pretty good!”

But, not being
Granma, I wasn’t making things up. Perhaps we just have different standards for “pretty good.” A 2003 report by the State Department Office of the Inspector General concluded that Radio Martí’s audience had declined from 9 percent to 5 percent. The OIG’s latest report, issued last year, noted two surveys showed listenership was “significantly higher” than that, while also concluding that the audience research was “inconclusive.”

The 2003 OIG report also concluded that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which operates Radio and TV Martí, “lacked key management personnel and internal controls” and “lacked programming quality control structures.” It also found that “the practices and procedures involving the hiring and use of contractors were inappropriate and inadequate. In some cases, OIG documented violations of government procurement requirements and actions that created an appearance of favoritism.”

Thanks to Mario and his brother’s efforts in the House—and those of key McCain endorser Mel Martinez in the U.S. Senate—the OCB budget swelled from $25.8 million in 2002 to $38.7 million this year. About $10 million goes to pay for the new Aero Martí project, in which pilots fly Gulfstream twin-engine propeller planes for five hours per day, six days per week, beaming TV Martí shows into Cuba. (The budget still also funds four hours of flights per week by a C-130 Hercules turbo-prop transport plane also equipped to transmit TV programming to the island.)

To be fair, maybe Congressman Diaz-Balart was referring to last year’s OIG report when he said “pretty good.” It did cite a variety of managerial improvements. But it also found all these good things:

“Greater emphasis is needed on internal quality control to ensure editorial standards are followed....Guidelines sometimes are breached; for instance, in one case a talk show host monopolized the conversation while editorializing, leaving little airtime for the guest to speak.

“A Radio Martí news manager said that the system was stretched and did not always provide the needed degree of review to ensure the Voice of America Charter, which stipulates that journalists be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

“The information OCB gleans from dissidents or independent journalists in Cuba is an important part of the views aired on Radio and TV Marti. OCB is well aware of this challenge. Furthermore, some contractors providing talent are unaware of OCB Editorial Guidelines and the Voice of America Charter because they did not receive them when hired or were not instructed about the requirement. To ensure that all workers at OCB are aware of standards, OCB should routinely provide these criteria to its contracted talent and new employees.”

As a remedy, the OIG inspectors recommended giving employees and contractors “refresher courses” in journalism. With taxpayers footing the bill, of course.

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting isn’t the only pork barrel the Diaz-Balarts, Lieberman, Martinez, and McCain have helped sustain. Another is called “democracy assistance for Cuba.” Between 1996 and 2005 USAID and the State Department granted $66 million in such assistance to 22 nonprofits, some of them in Washington, DC and most of them in Miami. Thanks in part to the persuasive powers of the Diaz-Balarts, spending swelled under the Bush Administration to $33 million in 2006 alone. The current annual budget is about $46 million. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2006 and USAID’s inspector general in 2007 found record-keeping and accounting practices so lax throughout the Cuba assistance program that there was no way to know if the nonprofits were spending millions of American taxpayer dollars properly or legally.

The executive director of one nonprofit put federal grant money into his personal bank account, along with private donations. Inspectors uncovered “questionable expenditures” for travel and such items as a chain saw, Nintendo Gameboys and Sony Playstations, a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat, and Godiva chocolates. USAID Cuba program administrators sent millions of dollars to democracy assistance groups before completing required reviews of the groups’ programs. The list goes on. The USAID inspectors determined that $37 million in expenditures “were not routinely reviewed” by Cuba program administrators.

Perhaps those are the “pretty good” reports that Mario was talking about. Or maybe he, his brother Lincoln, and McCain could use a refresher course of their own this election year. Where can they take Pork Barrel Spending Analysis 101? They only have between now and November to pass it, if any of their Democratic rivals manages to make a stink about all this.

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