Veteran Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of eastern Kentucky’s 5th District has a well-earned reputation for delivering to his constituents a bounty of earmarks – the type of government spending widely maligned by critics as wasteful, unregulated pork. A former chairman of the homeland security appropriations subcommittee, Rogers also excelled at attracting new jobs to his district from government contractors eager to placate those in control of the federal till. “His subcommittee holds the purse strings for billions of dollars in homeland security spending, giving him tremendous influence over the 22 agencies that make up the Department of Homeland Security,” wrote Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow in 2005. Associates of Reveal Imaging Technologies, Inc., contributed more than $122,000 to Rogers’s political action committee and promised to move millions of dollars worth of jobs to his congressional district, according to the Post. The explosives-detection company won a contract with the Transportation Security Administration worth nearly half-a-billion dollars. Other homeland security contractors reportedly moved parts of their operations to the Bluegrass State and became donors to the lawmaker hoping for their own coveted access. Three Kentucky universities were awarded $1.5 million in earmarks to develop a wireless electronic monitoring system capable of ensuring the safe delivery of milk. Other Kentucky higher-ed schools also won appropriations for surveillance systems that recognize “unusual” human demeanor and devices for identifying explosives at shopping malls. Rogers also established in his district the National Institute for Hometown Security to “put Kentuckians on the frontline of the war against terrorism while also helping to boost our economic development.” Audits after audit in recent years also have alleged that the state mismanaged cash infusions it received from the federal government for homeland security and emergency response, legitimate or not. One local bureaucrat in Kentucky’s Laurel County oversaw $530,000 worth of contracts awarded to a woman with whom he had private business ties, a fact he didn’t disclose during the bidding process. She later became his wife. The money was part of a larger FEMA grant totaling $1.9 million specially designated for residents living near U.S. Army chemical-weapons stockpiles. State auditors in 2009 questioned the entire amount of the grant and referred the alleged conflict of interest to the FBI and Kentucky Attorney General’s Office for possible legal action. The woman’s company under the contract terms was supposed to supply several counties led by Laurel with emergency-response trailers, generators and other readiness gear. But auditors found that the contractor overcharged for the generators by as much as $900 each, and the trailers were “inferior in quality and specifications,” having been smaller than agreed upon, among other things. Laurel County had other problems with the same grant. According to an audit report, local officials improperly managed the construction of an emergency operations center leading to $220,000 in cost overruns. In response, the county promised to better direct such projects in the future. Elsewhere in the state, Carter County couldn’t produce sufficient documents showing how it spent $286,000 worth of storm recovery assistance handed out by FEMA. Project files for the clean-up effort “did not include the required information recording that the work was completed, when and where the work was done, and why this work was done,” a 2006 audit found. Carter officials, too, vowed to keep reliable records next time. Auditors raised questions for several years about how Leslie County in the southern part of Kentucky used hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of disaster aid for repair costs and other work in which little or no documents could be produced showing how it was spent. Each year, county officials assured them new procedures were being put in place so that a better paper trail would exist. But in 2008, the auditors finally zeroed in on a total of more than $2 million in recovery assistance Leslie County had received from FEMA over a four-year period concluding that what records did exist weren’t enough to prove local authorities had managed the funds appropriately. They referred the unverified expenditures to Kentucky’s Division of Emergency Management asking that it determine whether the money should be paid back. Other counties were already causing state homeland security officials headaches by then. During 2003, the state cut a check for $7,300 in grant funds to tiny Lawrence County so it could pay for updating the area’s emergency operations plan. But the money never made it into county coffers. Instead, a local emergency management director opened a new checking account in the county’s name using a tax identification number he obtained, auditors later discovered. On the same day, he removed the entire cash balance and closed the account. “The county has no record of how the cash was expended,” a report disclosed. Nothing was done to resolve the diversion of public funds, and a county executive claimed he was told that emergency managers “could spend the money any way they wanted to.” That case involved state rather than federal money, but it still illustrates how taxpayer cash designated for disaster readiness can seemingly disappear into a black hole. Kentucky was also criticized in general for how it chose to use federal anti-terrorism grants that every state was eligible for after 9/11 and for its sometimes unique approach to emergency preparedness. State officials spent $36,000 to determine whether terrorists were embezzling money from bingo halls. And a Kentucky legislator announced in 2008 that he wanted the state’s homeland security office to post a plaque crediting “Almighty God” for keeping citizens safe from terrorists. “Government itself, apart from God, cannot close the security gap,” the Lexington Herald-Leader quoted state Rep. Tom Riner. “The job is too big for government.” Responding to a request filed under Kentucky’s open-records law, state officials turned over some documents to us showing how they have spent homeland security grants in recent years. The records are available for download here, and in most cases, you can search inside of them by jurisdiction for an idea of where the money went. Because expenditures from a grant can be made for up to three years after it was first awarded, the 2007 document is a progress report rather than a close-out of final purchases.
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