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Homeland Security Spending Marked by Waste, Shoddy Oversight
Posted on Sep 13, 2009
By G.W. Schulz, California Watch
Documentation not easy to find
In Madera County, north of Fresno, officials from the local sheriff’s department hired a contractor to help manage the county’s grant purchases. The list included $200,000 for computer-aided dispatch, a $50,000 hazmat response vehicle, $16,000 in surveillance gear and more for portable radios and respirators.
Problems didn’t appear immediately. But as grant awards increased and grew more complex, the contractor had difficulty showing the work he’d done. There were badly labeled and incomprehensible spreadsheets. Purchases became delayed. Department officials increasingly couldn’t reach him with questions. “His failures led to a cascade of confusing accounting errors that later proved irreconcilable,” said Eric Outfleet, a business manager for the sheriff.
The county finally realized that grant records were in disarray and the contractor needed to be fired – more than two years after he had started. It took 2,000 hours of work to sort things out and months to locate and identify equipment scattered across the county, Outfleet said.
Square, Site wide
Outfleet told California Watch that the county’s handling of grants has vastly improved over the last two years and his department “looks forward to demonstrating the success of our new accounting processes in the next monitoring visit.”
Grant applications filled out by local officials are supposed to reflect the area’s actual needs. But inspectors found paperwork in Los Angeles County that showed endless changes to how they’d originally promised to spend the money. For three grants totaling nearly $70 million in spending, the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management made at least 392 modifications in just one year. Many such changes were done without approval from grant overseers in Sacramento.
That meant the county “did not have sound investment justifications, therefore they did not meet their homeland security goals and objectives,” monitoring records from July 2007 show. At the time of the inspection, the county also for two years hadn’t inventoried the huge volume of equipment it bought, didn’t know where some of it was located and wasn’t sure who to call to find out.
Officials in Los Angeles responded that the slightest change counted against them as a “modification,” even for such things as having funds left over. The emergency management office’s director, John Fernandes, said the county is responsible for purchases made by dozens of cities and special districts in the area. They’re all now required to compile full inventory logs.
“Without question taxpayers should be secure that not a dime is being spent without checks and balances,” he said. “But if you’re talking to the fire chief or emergency manager, they’re going to say ‘What’s taking so long?’ It’s a painstaking process because of what goes into it.”
California Watch found that careless accounting led to other communities receiving more in cash than they deserved.
Agencies sought reimbursement for the same items twice – totaling at least $257,460 in double-billing. The excess payments were eventually corrected. The city of Oakland was forced to return more than $92,000 from the 2004 Urban Area Security Initiative. That error wasn’t discovered until the spring of 2007.
Monterey County was reimbursed for one $7,642 line item and then attempted to get paid a second time before state officials figured out what occurred.
Several communities could have benefited from earlier monitoring and told the state as much. Employee turnover occurred so frequently that local grant managers didn’t know what their predecessors had done. They struggled to answer questions from auditors.
Monterey County’s grants administrator Bertha Simpson said the state didn’t previously track reimbursement requests by category, such as equipment and training, so Sacramento officials weren’t always aware what they were paying for. That began to change once the site visits occurred, she said.
“I don’t ever want to go through that again.”
Bidding process skipped by some
At least $1.6 million in purchases were made without clear evidence that agencies pursued multiple bids from suppliers or had a sufficient excuse for not doing so. Inspectors raised questions about scores of other items, but it was impossible to determine a dollar figure because price tags often weren’t listed in the reports.
Oakland’s bus system, for instance, sought a sole-source $100,000 contract for equipment capable of detecting improvised explosive devices. Other grantees hired consultants or bought all-terrain vehicles and rapid-response trucks under similar circumstances.
The inspector general’s March report revealed that communities across the state were not aware of federal purchasing rules and bought gear without fair and open competition. In other cases, local agencies didn’t look closely to ensure no-bid contract proposals were reasonable. The inspector general identified $11.6 million in purchases where regulations weren’t followed. Auditors found that local authorities “preferred to avoid the burden of initiating competitive procurement whenever possible.”
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