Are taxpayer-provided cellphones for the poor being used for criminal or partisan political purposes?
As noted in the Vernuccio/Allison report, Lifeline is an FCC controlled, nonprofit operated program providing free cell phones to people on food stamps, Medicaid, welfare or who have incomes under 135% of the federal poverty level. Each of these “free” phones costs the government $30, plus $9.75 a month per unit, amounting to a taxpayer-paid charge of about $2.2 billion in 2012, up from between $772 million to $819 million in 2008.
Every American (except those on Lifeline) gets a $2.75 “universal service” monthly fee added to their phone bill to pay for this.
At a time when America’s debt is soaring, an audit discovered that 400,000 wireless subscribers had more than one line, and 41% of the participants could not or would not prove their eligibility. There is growing suspicion that street level drug dealers or worse may be using the program for criminal purposes.
The idea was originally intended to provide landline telephone service to the rural poor starting with the Woodrow Wilson administration. It was enlarged by FDR in 1934 and Bill Clinton in 1996. The wireless portion has grown rapidly under the Obama presidency. Senator Tom Coburn’s most recent “Waste Book” study pegs the program at 16,500,000 users in 2012, a presidential election year, a suspiciously mammoth increase over the 11,700,000 registered in 2011.
The question of who has, and who has been given, the numbers, names and addresses of those benefiting from this program is vital, particularly since participation grew so questionably much in a presidential election year. This information on so many hard to reach poor voters would be a micro targeting bonanza, particularly since many of the wireless phones can have texting capabilities and additional minutes added for a nominal monthly fee. It is reasonable to ask whether the phone numbers of Lifeline beneficiaries have been given to candidates, campaigns, PACs, and the like. It is also fair to ask whether the participants were given voter registration forms along with the free phones.
Political implications extend beyond the last election. Particularly since the massive 2012 increases, polls have been rather odd, with many voters, in an apparent contradiction, espousing support for incumbent elected officials while also stating that they believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction.
When China’s People’s Liberation Army can hack into our most secret and sensitive private and public information from a basement in Shanghai, would it be unreasonable to discount some elected officials misusing taxpayer funded cell phone data for inappropriate purposes?