As of 2009, the federal government had distributed a total of $29 billion over 8 years in anti-terrorism and preparedness grants across the country with the goal of making the nation more secure and better prepared for natural disasters. The 2010 homeland security appropriations bill also provides hundreds of millions more in cash for urban area security, railroad security, public transportation security, port security, driver’s license security, emergency communications, buffer zone protection, regional catastrophic preparedness and more. In addition, Washington lawmakers managed to deliver gifts back home to constituents in the form of unregulated earmarks that don’t come with the same restrictions and oversight federal grant programs do. The most popular earmarks stuffed deep in the 2010 homeland security budget were for the construction and expansion of “emergency operations centers” – $60 million worth spread across dozens of cities. And tiny Rhode Island made sure to get its share. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of the Ocean State, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, put out a press release when the bill was approved in committee noting how he had secured $980,000 for an emergency center in the capital city of Providence. “This critical expansion will enable Rhode Island’s emergency responders to protect the public and coordinate their efforts to prevent or respond to natural disasters and other emergencies,” the release stated. But Reed’s colleague and party brethren from Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold, was not pleased. The legendary government reformer joined Republican John McCain of Arizona, himself a ceaseless critic of earmarks, in attempting to clean up the homeland security spending bill through an amendment. Their proposed changes would have at least required a competitive process for allotting the funds that took into account actual risks faced by local communities. The duo’s plan was rejected by the Senate in July of 2009, however, with just a dozen other Democrats voicing their support. A perturbed Feingold told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the funds should be merit-based and complained that the Democratic Party was repeating the same mistakes made by Republicans when they controlled Washington during the Bush era. “The shamelessness of earmarking is getting out of control,” the paper quoted Feingold as saying. “I’ve warned the Democratic leaders already that I think there is a new fanaticism about earmarks and a willingness to intimidate senators who want to limit them. I think it’s the same cancer that affected the Republicans, and we better nip it in the bud, because this is the kind of thing the American people see as obscene.” Reed of Rhode Island had his own take on the nearly $1 million earmarked for Providence pointing to his state’s high unemployment rate and arguing that the center would “help a little bit in terms of getting our economy moving forward,” according to the Journal Sentinel. The operations centers serve as a central command for emergency officials from different agencies to coordinate their response to catastrophes. News stories describe the center in Providence as packed with projector screens, LCD televisions, satellite phones, more than three-dozen computer workstations, high-tech public safety radios, as well as a dedicated office and conference room for the city’s mayor. Emergency operations centers nationwide are not to be confused with so-called “fusion centers,” where law enforcement agencies swap intelligence about possible terrorist threats. Approximately 70 of those now exist across the country and have been constructed with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal homeland security grants. The Rhode Island State Police established one in March of 2006. As for how Rhode Island has used homeland security grants otherwise since 2001, authorities at the state’s Emergency Management Agency turned over several electronic spreadsheets of expenditures and cash totals in response to an open-government request after months of insisting that the records only existed in voluminous hard copies. While the computer files aren’t as richly detailed as actual purchase invoices, you can still download them here for a look at the amounts local communities in Rhode Island have received between 2004 and 2008. It’s also possible in many cases to see individual investments. For example, the police department in Hopkinton, estimated population 7,959, bought a $40,000 Ford Explorer using 2004 grant funds. Charlestown picked up two laptops totaling $4,600. A grants manager in Rhode Island said that to her knowledge, we were the first news organization to seek and obtain the records.
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