The Golden State is a leading recipient of anti-terrorism grants in the country due to its population, major attractions and powerful political representatives. At least $1.9 billion from major grant programs poured into the California between 2003 and 2009. State auditors in a Sept. 2006 report called California’s structure for emergency response a bewildering “labyrinth of committees, advisory bodies, and state and local agencies.” Despite threats posed by earthquakes, wildfires and 9/11, one entity responsible for advising the governor on preparedness issues, the California Emergency Council, hadn’t bothered to meet for four years, auditors found. Lawmakers in Sacramento only recently established the California Emergency Management Agency to help consolidate responsibilities long after complaints that the existence of multiple offices fostered confusion among emergency responders and local communities applying for federal funds. Earlier this year we decided to take a closer look at California’s grant spending and submitted an open-records request to state authorities asking for all performance reports that might show how well cities and counties had managed their anti-terrorism grants. We received hundreds of pages of so-called monitoring reports produced by state officials who are responsible for visiting local grantees to inspect purchased equipment and make sure records supporting expenditures are in place. The result was a story circulated with the help of more than two-dozen news organizations across California on the anniversary of Sept. 11 that detailed several problems. Madera County, Calif., couldn’t produce for inspectors adequate paperwork proving how it spent $1.4 million. Officials there told the state that records needed to verify more than $279,000 in spending may have been “inadvertently destroyed.” Poor accounting systems led other communities to overcharge the government for grant purchases, including $92,000 that had to be paid back by the city of Oakland. Placer County spent $47,000 on a computer software program for a local police department that wasn’t used. Another county attempted to buy a lawn mower with grant cash, and a university campus police department purchased a $2,300 plasma TV. The story package included an interactive map that enabled visitors to click on their county, see how much the area had received in major grants and view a list of top purchases, from chemical-resistant gloves in Inyo County to ballistic body armor in Butte County. We also showcased a selection of photographs depicting purchased equipment and explained what emergency personnel used it for. An accompanying story profiled one southern California company that specialized in building incident-command vehicles for which there was a high demand after Sept. 11 by police and fire departments flush with grant funds. At the height of the homeland security boom, Mattman Specialty Vehicles defied the seemingly impossible and went bankrupt in 2006 leaving some communities with half-finished trucks and lost deposits. California officials only began carrying out site inspections years after the fact, which meant many problems that occurred with grant spending at the local level were allowed to languish before eventually being uncovered. Despite improvements in oversight, however, auditors found in 2009 that the state had still failed to properly monitor another $28.7 million in federal funds awarded to California through a program designed to help communities pay for reconstruction and debris removal following presidentially declared disasters. As it has in the past, California blamed staffing shortages but promised to begin looking more closely at its disaster-recovery projects.
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