Flying on a commercial airliner changed forever after Sept. 11, and travelers have grown accustomed to the greatly enhanced security measures implemented since the hijackings, including thousands of new screeners hired by the fledgling Transportation Security Administration to search passengers and bags for dangerous items. The last worry anyone wants now is that the very people in charge of making travelers feel secure have themselves become perpetrators of crime. But that’s what happened in 2006 when two former TSA employees working at Honolulu’s International Airport in Hawaii pleaded guilty to stealing money from the luggage of Japanese tourists. One took cash on four occasions in the form of Japanese yen that totaled $4,800, while another stole $10,000 over eight incidents. They also admitted to being part of a larger group of passenger screeners at the airport who stole money from the baggage of international travelers and divided it up among themselves. As part of their sentencing, one employee was forced to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings and a judge directed the second to enter a mental health program, “which may include anger management classes,” according to court records. In another case that year, a TSA screener at the Molokai Airport in Hoolehua, Hawaii, confessed to stealing $16,000 in cash from a passenger’s backpack. The man was sentenced to three months in prison and three years of supervised release after being caught. Our effort to obtain records from Hawaii – notorious for its poor commitment to open government – showing how the state has used its homeland security grants since 2001 failed. In fact, Hawaii during this project became one of the worst of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. in making such documents available. More than a year after we sent a formal request under Hawaii’s Uniform Information Practices Act, the state finally provided an anemic spreadsheet that listed grant expenditures between 1999 and 2006 by general category, e.g. “law enforcement” and “hazardous materials,” but it does little to show how the money was actually used. It’s nonetheless available for download below. A grant manager from the Hawaii State Civil Defense office first asked several questions about why we were requesting the information and then said the office needed time to determine how best to provide us with the data. But follow-up calls and e-mails led to disappointment. News accounts and other publicly available documents do offer some idea of how Hawaii spent its anti-terrorism funds. The state awarded a $1 million contract in July of 2009 to a Texas-based emergency preparedness company for researching and developing an influenza-pandemic response plan amid fears over the spread of the swine-flu virus. Federal cash in 2008 enabled a police department in Hawaii County to spend $344,000 on laptops and software for its patrol cars so officers could access databases of criminal records on the beat. While the system has obvious everyday applications, one official called it a perfect example of how grants can help local law enforcement “enhance homeland defense.” A few months before that, county police spent $240,000 in grants on a four-wheel drive, 19,000-pound armored BearCat vehicle with radiation and methane gas detectors on board for use by its Special Response Team. The truck is deployed for executing high-risk search warrants, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and is accompanied on missions by a $330,000 mobile-command post the department purchased with homeland-security money in 2004. City and county police had to burrow military armored trucks in the past, the paper reported. Hawaii, a leading grant recipient per capita, received nearly $5 million in 2008, or twice what it did the year before, from just one infrastructure protection grant that it planned to spend on better defense measures for buses and security improvements at the state’s harbors and ports, according to the Star-Bulletin. A 2009 state audit found that Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety violated local and federal guidelines by not recording or entering into an inventory system $334,000 worth of equipment bought with grants. Auditors warned that the failure could jeopardize future funding.
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