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Homeland Security Spending Marked by Waste, Shoddy Oversight
Posted on Sep 13, 2009
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.
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:
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.
“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
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.
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