The latest progress report by the watchdog for America’s US$700bn bailout plan is out. The auditor’s analysis of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, is reasonably clear: “It is extremely unlikely that the taxpayers will see a full return on their TARP investments.”

Deeper in the 224-page report, a detail getting attention is the number of fraud investigations pursued against firms alleged to be gaming the bailout system. The bailout agency opened 25 new investigations in the fourth quarter of last year, roughly the same as the quarter before. Of the 86 cases opened since the bailout programme began, 77 remain ongoing. These investigations include—take a deep breath—“suspected TARP fraud, accounting fraud, securities fraud, insider trading, bank fraud, mortgage fraud, mortgage servicer misconduct, fraudulent advance-fee schemes, public corruption, false statements, obstruction of justice, money laundering, and tax-related investigations.” Most of the cases are based on tips to a confidential hotline, where calls range from “expressions of concern over the economy to serious allegations of fraud,” the agency says.

A detail that concerns this reader can be found in a curious line-item on page 132. Among the list of legal, financial and logistical contractors working with the watchdog, there is an unexpected “vendor”: NASA. Can it be that complicated?

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