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Homeland Security Spending Marked by Waste, Shoddy Oversight
Posted on Sep 13, 2009
By G.W. Schulz, California Watch
“It probably costs us $40,000 to administer a $500,000 grant,” he said. “Most other grants allow more, but Congress wanted to make sure this money was spent on the street for first responders.”
Godley said that Marin County tried to think practically about the money – using it to strengthen the area’s search and rescue teams rather than create radical new capabilities like a bomb squad.
Colusa County, a quiet agricultural community in the Central Valley with 21,000 people, sought reimbursement for a $321 Toro lawn mower, records show. Ten stretchers costing a total of $3,100 also were bought by the county with 2002 grant funds. But when inspectors arrived in 2007, the items were being stored in the original packaging. An official there told California Watch the stretchers are now ready for immediate deployment.
The 8,900-student Sonoma State University bought a 40-inch, $2,300 plasma TV, which the school told inspectors would be used for “training preparations in terrorism.” Campus police Chief Nate Johnson said the television is actually mounted in the school’s tightly quartered emergency operations center so his staff can watch CNN and other newscasts during disasters.
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Questionable and improper spending wasn’t limited to smaller communities that may have lacked the sophistication needed to manage federal grants.
Officials in Los Angeles County spent $20,000 on a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, $1,500 on a shotgun safe from the “Homeland Security Safe Co.” and $3,558 on 70 replica firearms, none of which were permitted under grant guidelines.
Spokesman Ken Kondo of the county’s Office of Emergency Management said local authorities approved the vehicle – a sport coupe used by the sheriff’s terrorism unit. Inspectors, however, considered it to be an inappropriate use of homeland security funds.
“When something became disallowed, the state didn’t want the money back,” Kondo said. “They wanted us to spend it on something else that is allowable.”
The mayor’s office in Los Angeles transferred $661,439 worth of grant funds to the county sheriff during 2006 for a 44-foot fast-response boat with a kitchenette and mount capable of holding an M60 machine gun. But the city didn’t receive prior authorization from the state or the Department of Homeland Security to do so. The paperwork was completed after monitors discovered the boat, records show.
State officials in charge of the grants have not required even simple invoices before reimbursing local governments with anti-terrorism money, according to a U.S. Inspector General report released in March. Instead, the state relied on promises from local bureaucrats about how the money was being spent, believing it could eventually check on the claims later during site visits. Yet those site visits didn’t commence until 2006 – long after many of the grants were spent, federal auditors found.
“Documents such as purchase orders, receipts, or delivery notices, were not present to support millions of dollars in grant expenditures,” stated the audit by Inspector General Richard Skinner of the Department of Homeland Security. California’s weak internal controls didn’t guarantee purchases were “eligible, allowable, and supportable in accordance with federal guidelines.”
Matthew Bettenhausen, the governor’s homeland security adviser and head of the California Emergency Management Agency, responded in a letter to the inspector general challenging the report’s conclusions. He insisted California had created a system that enabled his office to review grant applications and confirm allowable purchases.
Bettenhausen added that staffers at the agency responsible for the grants also carry out on-site workshops, meetings and conferences across the state to help guide grant recipients. Grants director Murphy told California Watch that requiring the state to collect every receipt would create an administrative nightmare. “That’s why we chose to keep it at the local level,” he said.
Those counties that stick it out can go a long way with the money. San Francisco spent $3.3 million paying police overtime to quell antiwar demonstrations in 2003. But state monitors questioned every dime of it years later, arguing that the expenses weren’t related to “critical infrastructure protection.” This despite claims made by then-Mayor Willie Brown that terrorists might use the protests as “cover” to attack bridges and other sites.
A homeland security official in Washington said then that the grants could not be used “for overtime or operational expenses.” But after inspectors raised doubts about the charge, leaders in San Francisco managed to produce a letter from California’s former homeland security chief, George Vinson, that authorized the large expenditure. Records show the $3.3 million also covered food consumed during the protests by police as well as gas used in their vehicles.
Some purchases made by communities across California elicited complaints about wasteful spending that became national news. A number of cities and counties bought Segway scooters for their bomb squads. State records show that Sonoma County upgraded to the Segway x2, outfitted with all-terrain tires, oversized fenders and a trailer hitch. The x2, according to product literature, “can master intimidating patches of dirt, gravel, grass, or sand.” The Segway cost $4,700.
The emergency services manager for Sonoma County, Sandy Covall-Alves, said its grant applications must be approved by all parties responsible for disasters – from the sheriff to the fire chief.
“We take our purchases and projects very seriously and always look at what will benefit the greater good,” she said.
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