Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Retired four star U.S. Army General Wesley K. Clark told the Press Club of Baton Rouge Monday the controversial federal program that distributed free cell phones to low income people gives them access to help for emergencies and a contact for prospective employers.

Retired four-star U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark is willing to participate in the debate that U.S. Sen. David Vitter wants about a federal program that gives families with low income access to cellphones, but Clark said Monday the Louisiana lawmaker’s effort is misplaced.

Vitter complains the federal Lifeline program, which provides free cellphones to about 6 million poor people, is “fraud ridden.” Last year he challenged Clark to a debate about the program and who paid for the 2004 candidate for president to travel to Louisiana and elsewhere promoting the program.

Prior to Clark’s appearance before the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Vitter’s office sent a prepared statement saying Clark is dodging the debate and suggesting questions for reporters to ask.

“I’m not ducking anything,” Clark said. “I’m happy to debate with Sen. Vitter, if he thinks that would be useful. But I would rather say to Sen. Vitter, ‘Why don’t we work together and make sure Lifeline meets your standards of appropriate accountability?’ ”

Clark said Lifeline, which was begun in 1984, has successfully provided access to jobs and emergency care to low-income people who otherwise could not afford a phone. The program provides basic cellphones to households whose incomes fall beneath 135 percent of the poverty level, which is $32,198 per year for a family of four.

More than 300,000 Louisiana residents received free cellphones through Lifeline, including 36,000 veterans.

“They are getting the basic, plain vanilla, keypad, dial a number on and be called on. If you want an iPhone 6, get a job and earn it,” Clark said. “There’s no chatting with neighbors.”

The program limits daily use but gives low-income people the ability to get help in an emergency or provide a prospective employer with a phone number.

Carriers, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., add about 40 cents per phone bill to pay for the system.

The program ran into problems in 2012, when as many as 15 percent of the users could not prove their eligibility. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees Lifeline, fined various telecommunications companies $14.4 million for signing up the same person multiple times.

In May 2013, Vitter introduced legislation that would end the free mobile service and restore Lifeline to its original intent of providing access via land-line telephones. He argues that the program has expanded from $143 million in 2008 to $2.2 billion in 2012.

But the Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees Lifeline, instituted programs that eliminated 2.2 million duplicate subscribers in 2013 and yields about $260 million in savings, bringing down the 2013 budget to $1.8 billion.

Vitter, who says the program is “fraud ridden,” has repeatedly challenged Clark to debate him and answer questions about who is funding Lifeline. “This public debate will be a real opportunity to find out Clark’s motives for promoting the fraud-ridden free cellphone welfare program,” Vitter stated in an October 2013 news release.

“What difference does it make if somebody in an organization pays my way down here to stand up for (Lifeline)? What’s the point?” Clark said, angered that Vitter implied he was doing something wrong. “He’s going to run for governor; what’s that going to cost him? Are you telling me he’s not taking any contributions? … But I think that’s a misplaced debate. It really should be about how to fix the program instead of being so involved in partisan politics.”

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