In response to a request submitted under Vermont’s open-records laws, the state Department of Public Safety turned over several electronic spreadsheets detailing how they’ve used federal homeland security grants since 2001. You can download the Excel files here, and for the most part they’re simple to navigate and understand. Local communities purchase equipment and services first before being reimbursed with grants, so the final column “expended” under the “local equipment” tab, for example, would tell you what items a town or agency received funding for, an official told us. While more detailed than what many other states sent us, the computer files from Vermont are more evidence that systems across the country for documenting how billions of dollars in grants have been spent after Sept. 11 vary widely. Records here themselves vary. The Vermont State Police budgeted $63,000 to “enhance information technology,” according to the files, with no additional detail. Elsewhere it’s easy to view specific purchases, such as a $4,500 laptop bought by Lyndonville’s fire department in the northeastern part of the state and two infrared cameras the South Burlington Police Department purchased for a combined $22,000. You can also determine that the town of Milton picked up a $26,000 video surveillance system for its municipal center, while several law enforcement agencies bought fingerprint stations costing up to $45,000 each. Costly automobiles have been a popular purchase with grant funds across the United States, such as response vehicles stuffed with communications gear, flat-panel monitors, conference centers and more. Records show that the South Burlington Fire Department used $219,000 for a special operations command post, and fire officials in Hartford, Vt., spent another $300,000 on an incident-response truck. On two occasions in recent years, auditors have questioned purchases made by officials with grant funds in Vermont. An Aug. 2007 report targeted $5.7 million in federal cash received by the Vermont Department of Health for bioterrorism preparedness. Vermont relied on a private state association of hospitals and health systems to aid them in processing a portion of the grants, but that group later complained they were given little direction and were unfamiliar with federal guidelines regulating how the money should be handled. “We operated somewhat blindly,” an administrator told auditors. Among other things, staff at the hospital association “were not fully aware” at the time of the audit how much in emergency preparedness supplies they actually had on hand – in other words, critical inventories of the gear weren’t conducted, although state officials did later complete them in the report’s wake. Major purchases of equipment and services were another issue. One consulting contract worth $76,000 was not bid out competitively and was awarded to a former employee of the hospital association. More than $43,000 was spent purchasing emergency radios with no record of competition, and the same thing occurred with more than $67,000 in pharmaceutical drugs bought for emergency responders and hospital personnel to use in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. Auditors said a company called Fisher Scientific International received $191,000 to supply Vermont with personal protective equipment – including gloves, masks and goggles – but there was no competitive bidding for those purchases either. Fisher, for its part, is a relatively obscure but large company that’s earned millions in revenue selling homeland security gear and services to states and local communities nationwide. “The planning efforts were not well documented and there were no purchase recommendations included with invoice records,” auditors said of the Fisher deal. They added that a lack of competitive bidding, which has been an issue for homeland security grant recipients elsewhere, can result in major investments costing more than necessary “reducing the amount of funds available for other grant purposes.” Moreover, according to the report, because equipment purchases and deliveries were poorly tracked, state officials didn’t realize until the spring of 2007 that more than 100 cases of shield masks worth nearly $14,000 had been paid for by the hospital association but never received. An acting health commissioner for the state promised that the missing equipment would be pursued from Fisher. We confirmed that the state did eventually secure the items. Officials also used federal funds for a $400-a-night hotel room during a conference in Quebec. Auditors determined that other rooms were available for half the price. Responding to auditors, the state vowed to better oversee bioterror grant spending in the future and that charges for alcohol to the grants, which the report also criticized, have ceased. The hospital association answered the report in a letter, too, and said federal purchasing rules would be followed but added that it had contacted a maker of safety equipment to confirm Fisher Scientific’s price for supplies was the best available. It also said travel and meal charges would be more tightly controlled. “The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems has reviewed the audit report and is taking immediate corrective action to eliminate current weaknesses in our policies and procedures,” the group’s president assured auditors. There were other audit findings in a separate report for homeland security grant expenditures made by Vermont, which we’ve uploaded here.
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