Attempts to learn more about how the state of Georgia has spent its homeland security grants since 2001 turned out to be an exercise in frustration. First we were told that sections of the documents, such as equipment lists and progress reports, would not be disclosed due to a provision of the Georgia Open Records Act that exempts: “Any document relating to the existence, nature, location, or function of security devices designed to protect against terrorist or other attacks, which devices depend for their effectiveness in whole or in part upon a lack of general public knowledge.” In other words, the less citizens know, the safer they are. Georgia would make the records available to us, but we’d have to cover the cost of labor needed to black out sections of the paperwork for the public’s own protection. That charge, officials told us, would be $4,785. The cost would include paying a budget analyst for 56 hours of work totaling more than $1,000. We also would have to pay $46 an hour for processing work done by Georgia’s homeland security deputy director, $42 an hour more for the terrorism division director and $33 an hour for the assistant terrorism division director. While committed to this project, paying nearly $5,000 was too much for us to afford. We subsequently learned through a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general that Georgia kept track of its grant purchases in convenient spreadsheets the state may be able to send cheaply in an e-mail or CD-ROM, rather than charging for the cost of Xeroxing 5,000 pieces of paper. But again the state responded that expensive redactions would need to be made of the information for security reasons. Searching for an alternative, we exchanged several e-mails and phone calls with the state over a period of three months. A public affairs official with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency offered to send samples of spending for a few counties that might indicate trends in how the state used its grants, but that wouldn’t tell us enough. We sought financial and performance audits, in particular reports from so-called “site visits” state authorities must make to cities and counties as part of their oversight responsibilities to verify that new preparedness equipment and spending records are all accounted for. Such material might have helped us zero in on misspending while not revealing sensitive details about the state’s critical infrastructure or public safety practices. Those, too, fell under legal exemptions for sensitive information, we were told. In the end, Georgia did provide spreadsheets and a two-page PDF that listed grant awards from 1999 to 2007 by local jurisdiction. The records also give a “general description” of projects funded with anti-terrorism cash. You can view them here. For example, the fire department in Carrollton, Ga., population 23,291, bought a $280,000 hazardous-materials truck. The City of Hartwell’s police department, which serves a community of about 4,300 residents, spent more than $15,000 in 2003 on a night-vision device and bomb-suppression blanket. Tifton, Ga., a town of about 17,300, paid $94,000 for a mobile-command vehicle, portable radios, physical security barriers, “crowd-control devices” and more. Even if obtaining more detailed spending information wasn’t possible without the state charging thousands of dollars for it, there are publicly available documents that offer a portrait of Georgia’s grant spending practices. When emergency communications systems aren’t compatible with one another, such as between a police and fire department, officials sometimes need to swap radios at the scene of a disaster or even seek out a land line to request assistance from another area. Making those systems interoperable and thus more convenient has been a leading post-Sept. 11 initiative. Between 2003 and 2007, the federal government awarded Georgia more than $100 million through various grant programs for communities and state agencies to invest in new radio projects. But in some instances, the state actually took a step backwards. One jurisdiction might upgrade its radio system while a neighbor didn’t, meaning communities that could previously contact each other lost the ability, according to a Sept. 2008 report from the state’s Department of Audits and Accounts. The same thing happened when regional shared systems were created if one city couldn’t afford to join. There was no single office in Georgia responsible for promoting interoperability, according to auditors, and state agencies don’t cooperate in making large-volume purchases of equipment that could save taxpayer money. One group of local officials working toward a seamless system complained that a private contractor was selling incompatible radio equipment to a nearby jurisdiction “knowing it would have a negative impact on their project.” A system maintained by the Georgia State Patrol provided limited interoperability by connecting computer servers in 81 dispatch centers. It was funded in part by $11 million in federal grants, but auditors revealed that intended local beneficiaries “were unfamiliar with the system and unclear as to how or when the system could be used, even months after installation.” State patrol officials answered the report by saying they were working on a user manual and personnel would provide on-site training and promotion locally of the interoperability network. They also argued that the system needed to be built out first with available dollars, while training based on actual scenarios would occur later. We’re posting the Georgia Department of Public Safety’s full response to the audit here for the first time.
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