Florida is a leading recipient of homeland security grants in the United States due to its significant population and major tourist attractions. And it’s received hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to recover from various disasters, namely hurricanes that pummeled the state’s coastline. Despite experience in managing sudden infusions of needed federal support, Florida still struggles to comply with guidelines regulating Public Assistance grants that are used to assist communities in the wake of catastrophe. In fact, auditors took the extreme step in 2009 of declaring that they couldn’t render an opinion on whether the state followed certain grant rules because a computer system used to track dollars distributed across Florida contained “deficiencies” that made its contents unreliable as a source of information. A March 2009 report also pointed to a “significant number of instances” in which the Florida Division of Emergency Management made aid payments to local recipients without enough documentation to show the costs were allowable and reasonable. The state didn’t carry out final inspections to ensure promised rehabilitation projects were actually done before cash from federal coffers was provided to cover expenses. Auditors questioned millions of dollars in payments because, among other things, documents weren’t available showing what tasks had been completed, from a $700,000 window project that had no otherwise clear explanation to book shelves costing more than $10,000 that an earlier estimate said should have been about $2,000 with no reason provided for the difference. As for homeland security grants, auditors also determined in early 2009 that $2.6 million, or a quarter of the spending sampled for compliance with guidelines, weren’t supported by documents the state needed in order to justify them, such as invoices. Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement promised to improve record keeping in response to the audit. That finding was among several others noted by auditors – some of which have come up repeatedly in reports from past years – that questioned the ability of both the Division of Emergency Management and the state police to properly oversee tens of millions of dollars in homeland security grants Florida has benefitted from since 2001. Much of the criticism overlaps into the state’s use of federal disaster assistance. On the other hand, Florida has faced some of the most devastating storms in its history during the last half-decade, and disarray to a degree is to be expected. Four hurricanes slammed into the state in 2004 leaving 117 dead and one-fifth of its homes damaged. The first caused approximately $14 billion in destruction. The following year Hurricane Katrina struck land and became the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history. While the storm didn’t create the havoc it did in New Orleans, a dozen people were killed and the Sunshine State sustained heavy floods. When auditors visited in 2007, state officials had not done final inspections for thousands of large disaster recovery projects worth $50,000 or more each to make sure the work was satisfactory and eligible under federal guidelines. Authorities responded that they had 50 vacant positions for such duties, which couldn’t be filled until FEMA provided cash to cover them. FEMA, for its part, didn’t anticipate completion of the inspections until 2032 if the progress rate at the time continued, according to a report. The state still had nearly 3,000 open projects as of early 2009, some of which were from older storms that occurred up to 10 years ago. Oversight lapses aside, President Barack Obama when he took office chose a top disaster official from Florida to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an appointment observed closely since its former director under George Bush was viewed as poorly credentialed and incapable of handling the response to Katrina. The selection of Craig Fugate elicited wide applause. Although a Democrat, he enjoyed support from two Republican Florida governors in a key position where he was given considerable latitude to make decisions. The Miami Herald described Fugate as a man “known for plain talk and a direct manner” who once said in a job interview when asked his weakness: “I don’t suffer fools.” Fugate helmed the state’s emergency management office through its record-breaking storm seasons of 2004 and 2005. There’s more about Florida’s homeland security apparatus that makes it unique compared to other states. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was among the first police agencies in the nation after Sept. 11 to embrace controversial data-mining techniques that involve sifting through large volumes of potentially sensitive personal information, such as credit histories and records of purchasing habits. Authorities believe it could lead them to terrorism suspects planning an attack. Civil libertarians counter that privacy laws designed to protect American citizens from intrusion by the government will wither in a new era of technology where personal data can be digitally preserved and mined for leads. Worse, an innocent person may be wrongly branded a terrorist. Seisint Inc., a company that processes vast oceans of consumer data for marketers, developed the so-called Matrix system for Florida law enforcement. But federal funds supporting the program were yanked in 2005 due to outcry. Reporter Robert O’Harrow of the Washington Post, who’s also an advisor to the Center for Investigative Reporting, described the rise and fall of Matrix in his 2005 book on privacy in the 21st century, No Place to Hide. His account included an interview with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s own intelligence director who said of Matrix: “It’s scary. I can call up everything about you, your pictures and pictures of your neighbors.” The department supplied us with some details on hundreds of purchases made using federal homeland-security grants between 2005 and 2007. The documents were disclosed in response to a public-records request, but a critical area of the records that lists services provided by private contractors is blacked out. Other states have made similar redactions when turning over grant-spending records to us citing security concerns. Brief project titles are included, however. The spending reports show that Florida police in recent years paid at least $1 million to LexisNexis, another company that collects and bundles details about individuals, for a “query tool” that can search both personal data and law-enforcement documents. LexisNexis purchased Seisint for $775 million in 2004.
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