A 30-foot trailer costing $54,000 in Hinsdale County, Colo., “did not appear to have been used” four years after it was purchased with federal grants. New mobile radios sat in storage there for nearly a year. A set of night-vision goggles went missing and has never been relocated. Elsewhere, the city of Denver overlooked a check for $1 million worth of homeland security funds, which sat in an abandoned mailbox due to a dysfunctional accounting system relied upon by the local Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Denver also used federal grants to buy refrigerator magnets, baseball caps, pens and more totaling over $35,000 for its “Ready Colorado” campaign, but guidelines didn’t allow such promotional items, inspectors concluded. Those findings were contained in documents the Colorado Governor’s Office of Homeland Security turned over in response to an open-records request. State officials are responsible for visiting local communities and checking up on homeland-security grant purchases to make sure federal rules are being followed. They did the site monitoring between 2008 and 2009. Local authorities responded by vowing to fix any problems identified. Hinsdale promised that its gear would be properly accounted for and deployed. The city of Denver’s emergency management office blamed bookkeeping problems on a past administrator and said it’s since made improvements. Officials said the Department of Homeland Security later decided the promotional expenses were permissible. They also told us Hinsdale was completing a larger radio investment before deploying those devices. But issues with handling homeland security grants are nothing new for Colorado. It received multiple scathing reports from auditors over the last several years that made the state a national example of sloppy government management. In early 2008, Gov. Bill Ritter was forced to create a new cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security to clean up the system citing the state’s poor oversight of federal cash. The fledgling office is nonetheless housed today in the state’s Multi-Agency Coordination Center, itself an emblem of Colorado’s past performance with anti-terrorism grant spending. Grant funds totaling $1.5 million had to be returned to the federal government after auditors in 2006 questioned a “less than transparent series of transactions” involving the state’s Department of Local Affairs, then responsible for distributing homeland security grants in Colorado. The state agency had used a complex scheme to benefit itself and obtain administrative office space at the coordination center using money that was in fact designated for other uses. A report from auditors that year criticized numerous other expenditures. More than $230,000 had been used to cover overhead expenses that weren’t allowed, including custodial services and the cost of utilities. Another $38,000 was spent to buy a passenger bus, and $46,000 went to an ineligible weapons training simulation system. One local grantee couldn’t produce documents showing how it spent $331,000 when auditors arrived because records “were incomplete and in disarray.” It took six months to verify that spending. Then in 2007 the federal Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, Richard Skinner, had his own look at Colorado’s use of anti-terrorism money. A phone system contained in an incident command vehicle paid for with homeland security funds didn’t work, but the manufacturer wasn’t contacted by local officials to fix the problem while it was still under warranty, Skinner’s staff found. Radiation detectors and a decontamination tent were in their original boxes months after being purchased. Nearly $8 million in spending was questioned by Skinner due to charges that didn’t appear to comply with federal regulations. Yet another performance report that year examined Colorado’s $135 million campaign to improve radio communications between police, firefighters, paramedics and other officials. Tens of millions of dollars for the project have come from readiness grants. Interoperability, as experts call it, is a major post-9/11 initiative and vast sums of money have been sunk into such efforts nationally. The report found that despite spending so much, Colorado couldn’t assess the extent to which statewide communications had improved. We were able to retrieve 80 pages worth of monitoring reports from the governor’s office in PDF form, and you can download them below. But our attempts to obtain additional records detailing individual grant expenditures by city or county in an easy-to-access computer file such as a spreadsheet were less successful. They’ve only been maintained in voluminous hard-copy records, which were too impractical for us to pursue, a problem that occurred with other states. Officials in Colorado also told us that time-consuming redactions of some security-sensitive information may be necessary. The state did recently begin using an Oracle database to track future grants, however, said program manager Deanna Erstad.
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