A congressional committee has launched an investigation into a federal program that provides free computers to public schools after News4 exposed the initiative's potential vulnerability to misuse.
The Computers for Learning program distributes nearly 30,000 pieces of computer equipment to schools and educational organizations annually.
But as the News4 I-Team reported last month, people falsely claiming they are eligible to receive the computers have been able to fleece the program out of millions of dollars in equipment they receive for free and then resell.
U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) asked program administrators in a letter sent Friday to turn over a series of documents detailing their management of the program and an accounting of the whereabouts of its bounty of government computer hardware. Chaffetz cited News4's story.
The I-Team report found the program is potentially at risk of further abuse, theft or misuse, because it lacks background checks of its participants and allows the resale of the donated equipment.
In at least two recent cases, men admitted creating fraudulent applications for the equipment, misrepresenting themselves as leaders of nonprofit educational groups, then reselling the donated computers for profit.
Computers for Learning is widely used nationwide, distributing hundreds of computers in the D.C. region alone. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) manages the program’s website, but no federal agency oversees the entirety of the program or its recipients.
The GSA did not immediately respond to an inquiry.
In his formal inquiry, Chaffetz asked the GSA for a formal accounting of its responsibilities for Computers for Learning and the costs it has incurred administrating the program. Chaffetz’s letter requests records detailing the whereabouts of all of the thousands of pieces of donated equipment and any inventories and audits conducted by the agency.
“It is imperative that GSA takes immediate steps to address mismanagement of the program," Chaffetz wrote in the inquiry addressed to GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth. "The agency must ensure that the excess computer equipment ends up in the hands of the children for whom it was intended.”
Chaffetz cited the findings of the I-Team report in his letter.
“The report stated there is no government-wide requirement of background checks or in-person visits of schools or non-profit agencies that apply for equipment," he wrote.
Chaffetz' request was cosigned by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who chairs a subcommittee with oversight of the GSA. His letter asks that the agency turn over its records to the Oversight Committee by August 5.
In 2015, Steven Bolden of California pleaded guilty to a fraud charge for accepting more than 19,000 pieces of Computers for Learning equipment and then putting the equipment up for sale. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report on the case, Bolden misrepresented himself as a representative of a legitimate nonprofit organization in order to get the computers.
In a separate case in spring 2016, Benjamin Twiggs pleaded guilty to a charge of making a false statement, after federal investigators accused Twiggs of submitting bogus information on his application to obtain Computers for Learning equipment.
Twiggs also misrepresented himself as the head of an educational nonprofit, federal investigators said. He collected about 100 computers, including from a federal warehouse in Lorton, Virginia, and then resold the devices from his apartment in Philadelphia, according to the GSA's Office of the Inspector General. Surveillance video and photos obtained by the I-Team show Twiggs loading piles of computers into a U-Haul truck at the warehouse in Lorton.
In a 2013 case, a representative of a nonprofit educational group in Silver Spring, Maryland, accepted a set of computers through the program, even though the group had stopped operating three years earlier. Federal agents found piles of the computer outside in a yard of a group member’s home in Montgomery County, Maryland. According to a memo produced by the GSA inspector general, the organization was able to continue applying to receive free computers.
The free computer program is popular among public schools.
At Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, Maryland, administrators estimate they have received more than 700 computer devices through the Computers for Learning program, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in budget expenses.
"They don't give us the newest of the new. But everything we receive is generally in good performing standards. It saves us a lot of money," school technology manager Tevin Edwards said.
Computers for Learning Equipment Distributed Fiscal Year 2015: