When presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 announced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, we decided to have a look at how her hometown of Wasilla and the surrounding Matanuska-Susitna Borough handled millions of dollars in federal homeland security grants. State officials had already supplied us with documents in response to a public-records request showing what other communities across Alaska had done with their own anti-terrorism funds. The result was a 3,600-word story published in partnership with Truthdig.com shortly before the November election. On the campaign trail, Palin had cast opponent Barack Obama as a big-government socialist who planned to redistribute wealth in the United States. Alaska, however, is a leading recipient of assistance from the federal government per capita due to its small population and historically powerful congressional delegation. We reported that the area of Alaska from which Palin hailed had received approximately $4 million in homeland security grants. The list of purchases included $66,000 worth of surveillance cameras and other security equipment for fire stations in Wasilla, a $410,000 mobile-command vehicle outfitted with a conference room and $427,000 for a hazardous-materials truck that contained a software program for plotting potentially deadly chemical plumes. Local authorities used at least $9,000 in grants to lease extra space for one of the vehicles. Wasilla wasn’t the only Alaska town that benefitted, on the other hand. We calculated that statewide, Alaskans received at least $100 per person from major homeland security grants putting the state behind only three others nationally: Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota. Our story found that the city of Whittier, with just 175 people, bought a $24,000 incident-command truck, two 4×4 all-terrain vehicles and two Anthrax detectors. No case of Anthrax infection has ever been reported in Alaska. A small fishing village spent $2,000 on an “impact-resistant door” and used $200,000 more to install a surveillance system for its downtown and port areas. The cameras caused a furor, which led to the local mayor’s resignation. The state has also benefitted immensely from homeland security and defense appropriations, i.e. earmarks, sought by Alaska’s congressional representatives in Washington. City budget documents showed, for instance, that Wasilla received nearly $1 million in federal aid to outfit its small police force with radio repeaters and wireless mobile computers. Another $4 million in earmarks was awarded to the region in 2007 for a pilot broadband communications project designed to benefit emergency responders. Grant spending records we obtained detailing individual purchases for the entire state can be downloaded at the right.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz