Illinois officials gave $200,000 a year to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Urbana so it could seek tips from the public about terrorists possibly tampering with the food supply by poisoning pets. Authorities also claimed the hotline would help them detect disease outbreaks. After two years, however, the local SPCA learned only that macadamia nuts are dangerous for dogs. The state’s health department in addition bought eight Ford F-350 pickups using homeland security grants. The Illinois State Police purchased a dozen Chevy Tahoe SUVs costing $30,000 each. And authorities planned to distribute across the state another 13 mobile-command vehicles packed with satellites, generators and communications equipment carrying a price tag of $230,000 a piece. But a check of odometers showed that many of the automobiles had thousands of miles on them, meaning the trucks appeared to have been used for purposes other than terrorist attacks or disasters. Newspapers in Illinois have tracked the state’s use of federal anti-terrorism funds since Sept. 11, including a series of stories in 2005 published by suburban Chicago’s Daily Herald, which revealed the details above. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency, an office responsible for overseeing readiness dollars, wasn’t quite thorough when we sought documents listing equipment and services paid for under a series of federal grant programs. In response to our request filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, officials turned over just three pages of documents. “The agency has conducted a search of its files and has found the information included herein,” a response letter claimed. Illinois received over half-a-billion dollars in grants between 2002 and 2008. It was possible to locate audits of the state’s grants management practices, however. Back in 2006, auditors warned the Illinois emergency management office that its internal controls for handling cash transactions needed to improve. Financial accounts had to be reconciled correctly so there would be no inexplicable difference between grants received and money actually spent. The following year, auditors made a similar finding. Don’t draw funds from the U.S. Treasury until you’re ready to disburse them locally, they instructed. Otherwise, you may lose track of what you have. One way the federal government hoped to ensure accountability over anti-terrorism grants was to require that local beneficiaries pay for new gas masks and helmets first with their own money before seeking reimbursement. Okay, the state of Illinois responded, we’ll fix it. Yet again the next year in 2008, auditors made identical complaints, and again, Illinois vowed improvements. Bookkeeping isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when planning a war on terror. But simple accounting measures are necessary to ensure good-government practices, which in turn means more money is available for investments in preparedness. In the fourth year, auditors proved why reliable accounting practices mattered so much. This time, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency overpaid the city of Chicago $2.6 million in federal funds, because officials submitted duplicate invoices for payment they’d already been reimbursed for. It took more than three months before the state asked that the money be returned. Aside from that pricey misstep, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general says Illinois has performed better than other states with its homeland security grants. In October of 2008, Inspector General Richard Skinner, a watchdog of the department, pointed to the Illinois Terrorism Task Force as a “best practice” other states could adopt to make grant spending more effective. The task force contains members of 63 different public and private organizations not just representing police and fire departments but also health care, agriculture, transportation, natural resources and education agencies. It’s the “driving force” behind all planning, funding and program execution activities, and the task force interacts to some degree almost daily. The state’s major accomplishments include two training events, one of which was “the first large-scale pandemic flu exercise ever conducted,” the foundation for a statewide interoperable communications system and the creation of 18 teaching centers for emergency responders. “As a result, the state has made significant progress in achieving statewide goals and objectives under the State Homeland Security Grant Program,” Skinner’s office stated in a report. “Because of the Illinois Task Force approach, the state did not experience many of the program weaknesses we identified during our audits of homeland security grant programs in other states.” Those problems included poor equipment safeguards, purchases that were unneeded and a lack of goals to justify expenditures. Still, plenty of fundamental questions can be raised in every state about where the money’s gone. The Herald newspaper also pointed to a treadmill costing $4,600 that a rural fire protection district in Illinois purchased. The clerk’s office in Kane County spent $37,000 to install surveillance cameras, not to identify terrorists but for employees who complained that their cars were being vandalized. Staffers from Inspector General Skinner’s office had some concerns, too. One state agency responsible for distributing grants to fire departments across Illinois didn’t have a central inventory system to “to control and account for millions of dollars in equipment and other personal property.” Federal auditors also wanted Illinois to better-track equipment with a limited shelf life, like gas masks, which if used past their expiration date can pose a danger to emergency responders.
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