When it comes to homeland security, the state of Mississippi has a friend in Washington. Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson hails from the state’s 2nd District and chairs the powerful House Homeland Security Committee. A small college in Mississippi where Thompson graduated, Tougaloo, is perhaps the most notable beneficiary of his influence. Located not far north of Jackson, Miss., the area’s zip code had a population in 2000 of about 827 people. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported in April of 2009 that Thompson was seeking a $23 million earmark to support Tougaloo’s National Institute for Education and Training. The institute already had a program for studying transportation security, which Thompson had previously enriched with millions of dollars in earmarks. But an official at the college admitted that the latest appropriation “hasn’t been fully defined” and could say only that he knew the school’s name was associated with it. The total dollar figure nearly matched Tougaloo’s entire annual budget. A Thompson spokesman told Roll Call that more than one institution would actually divide up the funds “to develop an engineering capacity in the region,” but little additional explanation was given. And Tougaloo, it turned out, didn’t actually offer an engineering major, according to the paper. Just weeks before that story broke, Thompson coordinated a summit at Tougaloo titled “Doing Business with Homeland Security.” Promoted through the House committee’s Web site, major private contractors for the Department of Homeland Security were invited to send representatives to the meeting, including L-3 Communications, General Dynamics, Boeing and Accenture. Thompson’s office described it as a chance to educate small and minority-owned businesses on successfully landing government contracts. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, the congressman helped establish a Center for the Study of Natural Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure and Emergency Management, which received a commitment from the federal government of $1 million annually over six years. Then in June of 2009, Thompson announced in a press release that he’d secured $750,000 worth of earmarks for an emergency operations center in Port Gibson, Miss., where the population hovers around 2,000 people. The city is an immediate neighbor to Mississippi’s Hinds County. Thompson served there as a mayor and volunteer firefighter for several years before catapulting into national politics. Hinds, for its part, suffered damage during a storm in the spring of 2008, but FEMA officials considered it too minor for former President George Bush to declare it an official disaster area, thus triggering federal financial assistance. That changed when Thompson stepped in with other public officials from Mississippi, and FEMA ultimately decided to make the funds available. Yet Thompson as a leader of the homeland security committee, has also been a stern critic of waste at the fledgling Department of Homeland Security. In September of 2008, Thompson held a committee hearing on $15 billion worth of Bush-era programs he cast as “failed contracts.” Investigators at the Government Accountability Office and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general have repeatedly blasted many expensive post-9/11 investments as poorly managed, such as the Secure Border Initiative, an attempt to line America’s southwest with surveillance cameras, remote sensors and fencing to keep out undocumented immigrants. Under Thompson, too, the committee has sought probes into a variety of homeland security issues, from airline passenger screening to possible public-health threats to general disaster readiness, among other things. In October of 2009, he questioned why the government had still not created a yard stick to reasonably measure how much $29 billion in anti-terrorism and preparedness grants distributed to states since 2001 have actually made the nation more secure. However, Mississippi itself hasn’t set an example for the rest of the nation in using modern technology to efficiently track grant spending. Authorities there told us they had no electronic records available showing detailed grant expenditures. Everything was in hard-copy form only. So when we filed a request for information under Mississippi’s Public Records Act, the state Office of Homeland Security told us the cost would be a prohibitive $6,600, which included paying the hourly salary of an employee to Xerox documents. The lack of Excel spreadsheets or other form of computer database to record individual grant transactions begs the question Thompson himself has been asking: How can officials track tens of millions of dollars in anti-terrorism funds by relying on a massive paper filing system?
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