Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is famous for his criticism of unregulated congressional earmarks, and losing the 2008 presidential election to Barack Obama didn’t slow him down. In November of 2009 he embraced new media to spread his theology of less government waste using Twitter to announce the top 10 earmarks he considered worthy of ridicule that lawmakers had packed into several appropriations bills. His crusade began with a spending package for the Department of Homeland Security that contained 181 earmarks worth more than $269 million. “No hearing was held to judge whether these were national priorities worthy of scarce taxpayers’ dollars,” he complained on the floor of the Senate. McCain described several of the appropriations before reaching the state of Utah: “There is $250,000 to retrofit a senior center in Brigham City, Utah. The last time I checked, senior centers are important but they have very little relation to homeland security.” Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who sought the senior-center earmark, sees it another way. He doesn’t quietly request the widely condemned brand of government spending from appropriations committee members on behalf his constituents back home. Bennett actively defends earmarks on his congressional Web site arguing that local mayors and county commissioners know more about what residents need from the federal government than the federal government itself. “If earmarking was removed from Congress,” the site states, “Washington bureaucrats would decide whether or not Utah would receive funding for projects such as light rail or water infrastructure, and Senator Bennett believes the bureaucrats do not know the needs of Utah better than the local leaders and elected officials.” Earmark disclosure records describe Bennett’s homeland security appropriation that drew fire from McCain as a disaster mitigation project to be funded by FEMA for structural upgrades including window-and-door braces and a new roof at the Brigham City Senior Center. Supporters of the money cite the center’s proximity to an earthquake fault line. “As the Brigham City Senior Center is located less than one mile downhill from the Wasatch Fault, should liquefaction occur, the center could sustain potentially severe damage or, at worst, collapse outright,” local authorities from Utah argued in an appeal for the money. McCain nonetheless said during Senate debate that earmarks lack the oversight other types of government expenditures receive. He and a handful of fellow senators such as Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin tried to amend the homeland security appropriations bill and require that some of the funds be distributed on a competitive basis rather than arbitrarily as earmarks. Among the majority of no votes was Bob Bennett and Utah’s other Republican senator, Orrin Hatch. “Maybe there is a reason why we have to spend $250,000 to retrofit a senior center in Brigham City, Utah, in the name of homeland security,” McCain argued during his floor speech. “… But we will never know because we don’t have any hearings, we don’t have any authorization. We just go ahead and spend the money.” Other homeland security earmarks pursued by Utah’s congressional delegation in the 2010 spending bill included a $2.1 million back-up data center to preserve public records for Salt Lake City in the event of a disaster, more than $1.2 million for new fire stations and equipment in Box Elder County and $6 million for Utah State University and other academic institutions to study cyber attacks. Earmarks secured for Utah come in addition to the tens of millions of dollars in anti-terrorism and emergency preparedness grants the state has already received alongside every other since Sept. 11. In response to a request submitted under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, officials at the state’s Division of Homeland Security turned over detailed computer spreadsheets showing individual grant transactions between 2003 and 2007 for several programs. You can download the records here, but a note about understanding them. State and local communities generally must purchase homeland security gear and services first with their own money before being reimbursed, which means they may not actually obtain the funds until up to three years after amounts are first awarded. The spreadsheets divide Utah’s grant spending by region, and you can search inside each one for individual cities and counties. A spokesman told us the “actual cost” column reflects what the grant recipient absolutely received, so others may show a purchase that was planned or budgeted but hasn’t gone through or was abandoned. For example, the fire department in Manila, Utah, estimated population 324, bought a $58,000 incident-response vehicle with 2004 grant funds. The sheriff of Piute County (1,400 residents approximately) bought five Toughbook laptops for $19,000 with homeland security cash from 2005. Morgan County that year picked up two all-terrain vehicles for $30,000, neighboring Davis County received $52,000 for an alarm system and the Daggett County Sheriff’s Office won 11 pairs of binoculars totaling $6,000. It’s worth noting that the electronic records Utah made available are substantially more detailed and convenient than what many other states and Washington, D.C. sent us.
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