In 2004 when anti-terrorism and readiness grants appropriated by Congress to the states had reached a multibillion-dollar height, what was then known as the House Select Committee on Homeland Security issued a scathing report that said much of the money had been spent without local recipients knowing what their emergency-response needs were. “The lack of target goals and guidance has resulted in terrorism preparedness dollars being spent on equipment or projects of only marginal utility to homeland security,” the report said. That was an understatement. Committee investigators found that one agency paid $63,000 for a decontamination hazmat unit being kept in a crate across from the local sheriff’s office – “an expensive item for a county that does not even have a hazmat team and little, if any, critical infrastructure.” A county official from rural Washington state admitted they purchased equipment that would likely go unused, and another from Wisconsin called the grants a “Christmas list … from a mail-order catalog.” A high school in Tennessee received $30,000 for a defibrillator to keep on site during a district basketball tournament, the committee learned. Grand Forks, N.D., had its sights on a $175,000 bomb robot, while Colchester, Vt., used $58,000 for a search-and-rescue vehicle that could bore through concrete. Then there’s the state of Missouri. Authorities in the Show-Me State decided to spend several million dollars in homeland security cash to buy 13,000 chem-bio warfare suits costing $400 each. As the committee’s staff pointed out, that was enough personal protection “for each and every full-time law enforcement officer in the state, regardless of the type of community in which he or she works.” Another lesser-noticed report, moreover, revealed a deeper story about Missouri’s colossal investment. Two years after the congressional findings, state auditors discovered that much of the equipment was distributed to local communities in Missouri that didn’t want or need it, in part because some of them previously owned similar gear. Others said they did not know how to assemble the suits. And in the state’s large jurisdictions of Kansas City and St. Louis, police left gas masks, gloves, boots and more unopened in their original boxes. In addition, officials paid a consultant nearly $250,000 to study how well emergency responders across Missouri were able to communicate by radio with one another. But auditors said the state’s Emergency Management Agency was “already aware of statewide interoperability problems” leading to questions about whether or not the expense was necessary. Preparedness authorities responded to the audit by blaming a past state government administration for not conducting formal needs assessments and promised that bringing homeland security tasks under one roof at the Missouri Department of Public Safety would fix the misplaced priorities. That said, out of all the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Missouri’s response to our open-records request seeking detailed grant spending records in electronic form such as a spreadsheet turned out to be among the most unusual. First, the Missouri Emergency Management Agency told us that processing the request would cost $285. After the payment was made we received 22 pages of paper records containing only generic listings, e.g. “contractor services” and “other authorized equipment.” We submitted a second request asking for entirely separate information, namely oversight documents that would show how effectively Missouri had administered its grants. This time we had to pay $211, but the state then sent the same 22 pages. A grant manager apologized and agreed to refund a portion of the charges, plus make available the additional material, but we still had not received them as of November 2009. What records have been provided by Missouri you can download here. Issues with Missouri’s federal grant spending continued to be exposed in 2009. The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general that summer questioned $752,000 in expenditures out of $6.3 million worth of grants awarded to a search and rescue team in Missouri’s Boone County. The FEMA program covers personnel and supply costs for special task force deployments needed in the event of an emergency. Federal auditors argued that $466,000 in spending didn’t comply with grant guidelines, and $285,000 more lacked needed documentation, such as invoices, to show how it was used. Local officials disputed some of the findings but also again pointed to previous finance staffers and said they acquired a new accounting software program as well as hired new managers.
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