An Oklahoma bill to tighten restrictions on the federal free cell phone bill is advancing to the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. State Representative Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) said his legislation is intended to cut down on the "blatant government waste" in the Lifeline program that provides cell phones to low-income Americans.
House Bill 2165 would give the Oklahoma Corporation Commission the ability to issue fines to companies that violate rules of the program. Those violations have resulted in individuals getting phones using fake names and addresses as well as getting multiple free cell phones.
Our 6 Investigates team went undercover to show how the program is losing millions each year to waste, fraud and abuse.
Although the federal agency that runs the program has promised reforms, a recent trip to a homeless shelter showed people who are having no problem getting free phones. One man even told 6 Investigates that he is no longer homeless because of the money he's made selling the multiple cell phones given to him by Lifeline companies not following the rules.
"I have zero faith in the federal government doing anything to restrict this program," Representative Jon Echols said Friday morning after the bill had unanimously passed a House committee. "The way they set this program up is the problem."
Echols said Lifeline is the only federal assistance program he is aware of that not only doesn't verify that the recipients are eligible but actually prevents the cell phone vendors from keeping documentation about the people who receive free phones.
"I'm a big privacy guy, but that being said, with every other program that I know of where you're taking federal or state assistance, we go through a verification process so you don't get paid twice. It's mind-boggling, and that's what's made it so hard to tackle this issue.
"If I could change one thing right away, I would allow these companies to keep a record of the qualifying documents," he said. "You would know who is cheating and who is playing by the rules right away."
Echols said some of his constituents suggested shutting down the Oklahoma Lifeline program until the federal government makes reforms, but he believes even if it could be done, it would make matters worse because the state could lose any oversight of the program.
House Bill 2165, if passed, should lower the amount of money that Oklahoma spends on its portion of the Lifeline program, Echols said.