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Homeland Security Spending Marked by Waste, Shoddy Oversight

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Posted on Sep 13, 2009
California Emergency Management Agency

Several communities in California used homeland security grants to buy large heavy-rescue and hazardous materials-response trucks. Other truck purchases were on the smaller side like this golf cart in Long Beach.

By G.W. Schulz, California Watch

This article was published previously on the Web site of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Soon after hijackers obliterated the World Trade Center towers eight years ago, [California’s] Marin County received more than $100,000 in surveillance equipment to keep its water treatment system safe from a terrorist attack.

But four years after the funds were awarded, state authorities found more than $67,000 worth of the gear still boxed in its original packaging.

It had never been used.

The rest of the homeland security money went toward an alarm system to protect remote tank and pump sites. Because of the region’s hilly terrain, the system didn’t even work.

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The Marin County example is not an isolated one. Under the state’s open-records laws, California Watch found scores of instances of wasteful spending, purchasing violations, error-prone accounting and shoddy oversight at agencies across the state during the years immediately following 9/11.

California Watch, a new unit started by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting,  examined thousands of pages of documents from 160 monitoring reports written by state homeland security officials who visited cities and counties across California to inspect equipment and grant records for compliance with federal guidelines.

Among the findings:

  • Inspectors identified more than $15 million in questionable costs. The Lincoln Police Department in Placer County spent $47,000 on computer software designed to analyze crime reports so officials could better apply resources but, like Marin County, didn’t use what they bought.
  • Cities and agencies bought things with grant money that would not make California a safer place. One county tried to use anti-terrorism funds for a lawn mower, but it was blocked at the last minute. Another county succeeded in buying a big-screen television.
  • Dozens of cities and agencies failed to keep adequate records on how they spent the money. In some cases, the poor record-keeping resulted in thousands of dollars worth of overpayments to local agencies. In other cases, agencies were unable to find where they stored their own equipment.
  • Communities repeatedly bought large and small-ticket items without seeking competitive bids. Federal procurement rules designed to protect the taxpayer weren’t used on millions of dollars in new communications systems, night-vision goggles and bomb-disposal robots.

The chaos that surrounded homeland security spending in California raises new questions about safeguards as Washington proceeds to directly hand the state and those same communities an estimated $465.2 million in economic stimulus funds for public safety programs as part of President Obama’s attempt to save the nation’s beleaguered economy.

 

Like homeland security grants, lawmakers and the president want the recovery package to be spent as quickly as possible.

Government auditors say that even now the Department of Homeland Security can’t gauge how much the grants have made America safer. Local officials and other experts, meanwhile, worry a lack of oversight could lead to the same types of mistakes with the stimulus package that plagued anti-terrorism funding.

“The guidance we get from Sacramento is not always clear on what we’re supposed to do,” said Tony Richno, deputy director of the Modoc County Office of Emergency Services. “It’s very difficult to comply and sometimes the rules are unreasonable. But we accepted the money and knew what we were getting into.”

Brendan Murphy, director of grants management for the California Emergency Management Agency, said several areas of the state have improved their handling of federal funds. He said that site inspections done by his office are resulting in fewer negative findings.

California Watch is a new reporting unit started by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Last year, CIR began examining the effectiveness of America’s homeland security efforts in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity. To read more go to www.californiawatch.org.

“You see communities that might have been struggling a few years ago,” Murphy said. “They’re not struggling anymore, or are at least doing better.”

Many states did not carry out required oversight, and California only began doing site visits at cities and counties in 2006 – years after much of the money had been distributed. That meant problems with the grants languished before state inspectors uncovered them.

The Golden State has frequently outpaced the rest of the nation in total dollars awarded due to its size and top attractions, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Disneyland to the Los Angeles International Airport. California has taken in at least $1.9 billion between 2003 and 2009 from major grant programs.

A number of grant beneficiaries had no problems managing the money they received and met the expectations of the federal government. State inspectors reviewed about $550 million in spending and found that much of it was spent properly. But not all of it.

Guidelines created potential problems
At the outset, guidelines regulating homeland security grants created an environment for potential problems. Recipients were required to draft plans right away for how they would spend the money – training exercises, gas masks, bomb-mitigation vehicles, surveillance devices, new digital radios all needed to be financed and deployed as quickly as possible.

Local communities complained they were short of the staff needed to complete mountains of grant forms, conduct inventories of the equipment purchased and compile invoices that proved how they spent the money.

In addition to its abandoned security system, Marin County also received $40,000 for medical cache supply trailers that weren’t actually purchased, and $2,300 more went to hundreds of rounds of ammunition, which is not allowable under grant rules. Once discovered by monitors, the county was permitted to use the money for other items instead of paying it back, a common occurrence.

Chris Godley, the head of emergency services for Marin County, said local grant managers were often inadequately trained and attended only brief classes offered by the state on how to control the money. Unlike other programs, he added, the federal government allowed just a small percentage of anti-terrorism funds to be used for administrative expenses, which made them more difficult to manage.


New and Improved Comments

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By bogi666, September 16, 2009 at 12:51 pm Link to this comment

DHS is and was created as a shell game for the purpose of corruption by contracting its funding to private sources which are unaccountable without transparency.

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By Richard, September 16, 2009 at 12:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was working for the USCG on active duty at the time.  The CAPT I was working for spent the money on new leather chairs for his conference room and the entire unit got flat screen monitors (except for my group, but that is a longer story).

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By voice of truth, September 16, 2009 at 9:45 am Link to this comment

And these are the people you want to trust your healthcare to???  Really??

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By Gloria Picchetti, September 16, 2009 at 6:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Overspending? Waste? What did you expect?

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By homas, September 15, 2009 at 3:33 pm Link to this comment

I worked for a privately owned psych hospital in D.C. that used Home Security funds to purchase and install cameras in the hallways.

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By ardee, September 14, 2009 at 5:00 am Link to this comment

Play Donkey Kong for Peace!

Bureaucratic boondoggles are the norm, in every facet of government. The entire Homeland Security Dept was a huge mistake, as was the Bush Administration and as is the Obama Administration as well….

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By ChaoticGood, September 13, 2009 at 11:00 pm Link to this comment

When NYC was attacked on 911 we retaliated on the “enemy” by going shopping, invading Afganistan and letting Osama escape, then we lost interest in Osama and then invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with 911 and had no WMD’s.  Then we put the Iraqi national guard on our payroll so they wouldn’t shoot at us anymore and then we declared “victory” and went back to our barracks.

With that type of “logic” in operation, it is perfectly “logical” to buy firetrucks, gas masks and radio equipment for cities in the midwest, which are extremely unlikely to ever be the targets of Al Queda radicals. Why put in radiological sensors at our ports or increase security at our chemical plants, when you can buy the favors of your local politicians with that money.

Given our track record, the next “logical” step in our war on terror should be to buy video games for everyone in Pakistan.  Within a few weeks, the Taliban will be so addicted to “Donkey Kong” that they will lose the will to fight and will just give up.

Just remember, “Up is Down”, “War is Peace” and “Standing still is moving forward”.  So says the Department of Homeland Security who brought you the “color coded” lifestyle meter.

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politicky's avatar

By politicky, September 13, 2009 at 6:37 pm Link to this comment

The “War on Terror” and “War on Drugs?”  Just another excuse for men in law enforcement to engage in turf wars and pissing contests.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, September 13, 2009 at 6:02 pm Link to this comment

The jury of public opinion is still out on “hijackers” destroying the WTC.

I would rather see ambulances, fire trucks, rescue equipment and radios given to our first responders here in America than that money spent on tanks and aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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