State auditors discovered several problems when they showed up to the Nevada Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management in the fall of 2008. But officials there strongly disagreed with many of the findings and fired back in a lengthy response letter. Among other things, auditors concluded that the division had failed to report a possible conflict of interest in which an employee was involved in a company that put together emergency operations and response plans for local communities. The same state worker was also responsible for supervising an office that reviewed and maintained the plans. A letter from the company’s president claimed the man only had a limited affiliation with the business and received no salary, but auditors said in a report that no documents were turned over to substantiate the claim. The emergency management division, for its part, decided the employee was merely “moonlighting” and that no action needed to be taken. “Because [the division] did not follow procedures, a thorough investigation was not done to determine whether the employee used his position to obtain favorable treatment for the corporation,” the audit report said. No doubt emergency operations plans are an issue for Nevada. Developing them across the country has been a critical element of state homeland security initiatives emphasized by the federal government. State law also requires that the office guide local agencies in establishing such plans so that they’re ready for unavoidable catastrophes. But the emergency management division didn’t have on file dozens of them for school districts, resort hotels, tribal nations and other state agencies. The plans weren’t present even for some critical offices such as Nevada’s public utilities and emergency-response commissions. Many planning documents lacked evidence that they’d been updated annually. Preparedness officials had nonetheless given themselves a top score in the area of disaster planning when reporting to the federal government and the Nevada governor’s office. The plans are supposed to include a list of available preparedness gear, but two of the logs were dated back to 1994. There were other issues with equipment. Emergency responders need to be able to quickly locate it since their responsibilities largely hinge on sudden, unanticipated events. And the federal government requires detailed inventory logs that show the location and condition of incident-command vehicles, gas masks, decontamination tents, search-and-rescue tools and other items purchased with preparedness grants. State authorities used a computer database for this purpose, but in 2006, the only employee who knew how to operate it retired, plus, the business that conceived the program went belly up. So for two years the state went without it until a new one could be installed, according to auditors. Nevada’s Department of Public Safety responded angrily to the audit calling it “misleading” and “a misrepresentation of the division’s capabilities.” “The division has demonstrated through consistent performance the state’s ability to effectively and expeditiously respond to and recover from eight disasters since 2004,” division chief Frank Siracusa wrote in a letter. Siracusa said his office had no statutory authority to force anyone else to maintain an accurate emergency operations plan. They could threaten to withhold federal grant funds for not complying, but according to Siracusa, “some jurisdictions do not recognize this as an incentive.” As for schools and tribal nations, state emergency personnel complained that they didn’t have the staff needed to oversee those preparedness plans. High turnover in emergency management offices has been a problem for other states. The letter also said that Nevada’s public safety director was “completely briefed” on the alleged conflict of interest and he felt the emergency management division handled everything appropriately. The matter didn’t need to be reported to an internal affairs office for investigation, because it answers to the head of public safety who’d already decided such as probe wasn’t necessary, Siracusa argued. Either way, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, noting that Nevada had received $148 million in federal readiness grants over a four-year period, lashed out at the public safety department in a scathing editorial and argued that local governments had fought disasters in the past without state bureaucracy: “The state’s audit of the Division of Emergency Management confirmed the existence of yet another budgetary black hole, of an abyss of accountability, of a multimillion-dollar fraud put upon the taxpayers in response to their terrorism fears. Lawmakers don’t need to follow-up on this audit with months worth of inquiries and hearings on compliance measures. They need to do away with the Division of Emergency Management, federal grants be damned.” Officials at the Department of Public Safety initially indicated they would make computer files available to us showing how the Silver State had spent its homeland security grants since 2001 after we requested the information. But the promised files never arrived, and follow-up inquiries didn’t help. Many of the state’s grant spending details are also still in voluminous paper documents, which are difficult to navigate compared with spreadsheets of spending, an issue we encountered elsewhere in the United States.
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