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Oyster grants to state disputed

The Baltimore Sun

A conservative Oklahoma senator who wants to eliminate congressional earmarks has asked a federal agency for a detailed explanation of how $10 million in government grants for oyster recovery has been spent in Maryland.

In a letter to the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn said he was "very concerned" about questionable spending practices detailed in an article in The Sun about the Maryland's Oyster Recovery Partnership.

"It sounds like a dubious use of federal dollars and raises a lot of questions," Ronald L. Foster, an aide to the Oklahoma Republican, said yesterday.

The partnership, a nonprofit group charged with trying to restore oysters to the Chesapeake Bay, receives its annual funding through a federal budget "earmark" arranged by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

The Sun reported this month that while the group has planted nearly a billion hatchery-raised oysters since 2000, less than a third have been put in protected sanctuaries. Most have been planted in places where they can be harvested by watermen and sold.

The newspaper also found that the partnership is paying the Maryland Watermen's Association nearly $400,000 this year to remove diseased oysters from one part of the bay and dump them in another. Proponents say this practice helps other oysters survive, but it has no proven scientific value. Critics say its primary purpose is to provide income for watermen.

The partnership also used $46,000 in federal funds to hold its annual dinner at the Hyatt Regency golf resort and spa in Cambridge, The Sun reported. Meanwhile, the bay's oyster population remains at historic lows.

In the letter to NOAA chief Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., Coburn questioned how the earmarked funds were being used. "What oversight has NOAA conducted of this specific grant?" Coburn asked. "[P]articularly was NOAA aware that funds were being used for banquets or of the financial conflicts of interest between staff and organizations receiving funding?"

Coburn also asked for reports on how the partnership is doing in meeting its stated goals and whether its federally funded efforts have been cost effective.

Monica Allen, a spokeswoman for NOAA, declined to comment on Coburn's letter but said the agency would provide a copy of its response when it is completed and sent to Coburn.

Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, said, "It would be inappropriate to comment until NOAA has had the opportunity to respond."

Foster said Coburn has attempted to focus attention on earmarks as part of a campaign to end what he regards as wasteful government spending.

A year ago, Coburn and Arizona Sen. John McCain sent a letter to all 100 U.S. senators announcing they would challenge every earmark, or "pork project," on the Senate floor.

The problem with earmarks, Foster said, is they are made based on political connections and aren't subject to competition or stringent oversight.

Coburn said The Sun's article about the Oyster Recovery Partnership's spending raises larger concerns about how NOAA handles its federal grants. "Is this one example the exception, or is this a widespread problem at NOAA?" Foster asked.

Lautenbacher has taken issue with The Sun's findings, saying in a recent letter to the newspaper that his agency provides adequate oversight of the federal funds provided to the partnership.

NOAA officials have pointed to the fact that the partnership has hired an auditor each year to do a standard financial review to comply with federal requirements.

In 2006, Senator Mikulski asked NOAA for "an independent audit" of the partnership. In response, records show, the partnership had its usual accounting firm review its own audit reports from prior years. The firm found its reports to be appropriate.

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