Progress in federal moves to wipe out $25 billion in fraud; Government hot lines field thousands of calls; over $15 million saved so far

Waste, fraud, and abuse in government programs remain a massive problem involving billions of dollars. But there has been significant progress made in curbing these villains that not only sap federal coffers but undermine the government's morale and moral strength.

Following the lead of President Carter, the Reagan administration is emphasizing a general cleanup of mismanagement and intentional wrongdoing that have been estimated to cost Uncle Sam as much as $25 billion a year. While government workers often are criticized for wasting or stealing money or property, much of the current reform effort relies on the good will and intentions of bureaucrats - and it appears to be paying off.

''Hot lines'' have been established in all government departments as well as in the General Accounting Office (GAO), the watchdog agency of Congress.

One example of the fruit of such efforts: Two professors at the University of Wisconsin Center for Research and Training recently were convicted of diverting federal funds to personal use and extorting money from program trainees. A call to the GAO's hot line resulted in an investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general. The professors were sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to make restitution of $82,000 each.

Since it was set up 33 months ago, the GAO hot line has taken more than 32, 000 calls from government employees and taxpayers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia as well as from overseas. Of these, about one-third are judged worthy of review and 20 percent undergo further audit or investigation. About 30 percent of the informants are government employees.

Calls have been made regarding all 13 Cabinet departments, but the largest single category involves individual and corporate recipients of government assistance including welfare, social security, veterans and disability benefits, food stamps, and health care.

The more recently established hot lines in the 17 offices of inspector general throughout the government have been proven increasingly effective as well. For example, President Reagan's Council on Integrity and Efficiency (part of the White House budget office) has been publicizing the Defense Department hot line and calls have nearly tripled as a result.

Some other examples of progress resulting from the Reagan administration's emphasis on curbing abuse and mismanagement: The number of indictments for food stamp fraud this year has nearly doubled over 1980; using a computer matching technique, the Veterans Administration has identified 66,000 federal employees who owe the government a total of more than $37 million; in the first nine months of 1981, the Department of Agriculture has reduced delinquent Farmers Home Administration debts by $1 billion.

There is some concern, however, that the administration's budget cutbacks may adversely affect the work of the inspectors general. The most recent 12 percent across-the-board reduction will cost these watchdogs $30 million, a savings that critics say may be self-defeating.

It is difficult to know exactly how much the hot lines and other crackdown measures are saving the government. The GAO figures its program has saved upwards of $15 million so far at an administrative cost of about $1 million a year. More important may be the losses that are prevented by having such programs.

Referring to the University of Wisconsin case, a GAO official says, ''The more people see things like that being prosecuted, the more there will be a deterrent effect.''

Important, too, are the changes in government management policies that result in longer range savings. In one case, $2 million had been embezzled from the Defense Department's civilian health program because of inadequate separation of duties. One person was able to prepare and later certify phony claim forms. This has since been corrected.

Despite these advances, officials agree that the problem remains a very large one.

''Agency inspectors general and the Department of Justice are making progress in the fight against fraud. However, more needs to be done to prevent fraud and to punish those who commit fraud,'' the GAO reported earlier this year. ''The sad truth is that crime against the government often does pay.''

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