Much of the responsibility for overseeing federal homeland security grants was shifted away from Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks and placed on a single office in each state designated by the governor to be in charge of the money. Personnel in that office determine what the state’s preparedness needs are, review documents like invoices from equipment purchases made by local communities to ensure they’re appropriate and ideally at some later time inspect safety gear around the state to make certain it’s working properly and can be quickly deployed in the event of a disaster. They’re known in bureaucratic-speak as the “state administrative agent,” and in the case of Virginia, that office is the Department of Emergency Management. Authorities there, it turns out, embraced a strategy similar to Washington’s and decentralized “the majority of grant requirements” by further farming out the handling of tens of millions of dollars in federal funds spent during the years immediately following Sept. 11 to local government agencies, according to a 2006 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Federal auditors concluded that Virginia’s move led to problems: “The Commonwealth did not ensure that local jurisdictions had staff in place to effectively and efficiently apply for grants, procure equipment, and close out grants. Because of insufficient resources, local jurisdictions could not comply with grant requirements in a timely manner, nor be responsive to those requirements.” Grant duties still largely appeared to be in the hands of local governments when we contacted state officials in 2008 requesting records that would help show specifically how the state had spent anti-terrorism and preparedness grants since 2001. We were told then that many of the records were not in the state’s possession and would have to be obtained from each county. In fact, one of the few records we received from the state was the report from Inspector General Richard Skinner. Each grant also carries with it an “authorized” equipment list designed to prevent recipients from indulging in spending sprees that don’t lead to greater security. That list has changed frequently in recent years as the federal government identified more gear it considered relevant to homeland security. But auditors examining Virginia still zeroed in on more than $400,000 worth of tee-shirts, pagers, Blackberries, generators, traffic cones, binoculars, televisions and more that they viewed as questionable. When local newspapers in Virginia publicized Skinner’s findings, an anti-terrorism chief for the state, Robert Crouch, said the report was “second-guessing judgment calls” and that local emergency responders knew what their needs were. According to published reports, Crouch argued that some of the criticized purchases “may have been taken out of context” and the state over time along with many others was establishing reforms, such as using a “risk-based” strategy for distributing homeland security grants across Virginia. However, state auditors in separate reports concluded in 2009 that the Department of Emergency Management in Virginia had still not implemented a plan for monitoring grant recipients “to ensure that they are properly spending funds for their intended use.” A report added that state officials “are not sharing information on how well or poorly [grantees] are using their funds.” State emergency managers acknowledged they had certain oversight roles but argued since several state agencies funnel money to local governments through various federal programs, one office could perform functions such as site visits to make certain purchased safety equipment is well maintained and records verifying expenditures are in place. The state of Virginia has also invested heavily in a new statewide public safety radio system for enabling emergency responders to better communicate, an essential but also costly initiative that virtually every state pursued after the Sept. 11 hijackings. Even before the attacks, the Virginia State Police in 2000 began to replace equipment first installed in 1977 with modern digital technology that nearly two-dozen agencies would use to speak with one another during emergencies while allowing localities to tap in as well. Authorities eventually signed a whopping $330 million deal with Motorola, the only company to bid on a request for proposals, and it became known as the Statewide Agencies Radio System Project, or STARS. In the spring of 2009, state auditors noted that the effort continued to face scheduling setbacks and budget shortfalls. Among other things, laptops installed in government vehicles and provided by Motorola that were supposed to work off the new system failed up to 30 percent of the time in various tests and public officials finally stopped putting them in cars, because they did not meet contract specifications. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in the summer of 2009 that some state troopers had grown so frustrated with the system’s lack of reliability they were using personal cell phones to communicate. A state legislator complained that STARS “has had continuing problems, and we are repeatedly told that this thing will be corrected and made to work. At some point you just wonder if we are getting the whole story,” according to the paper. Unlike many other states that have relied heavily on federal homeland security grants for new emergency communications devices, Virginia issued state bonds to finance STARS and expected to pay the money back through a tax on rental cars. But officials in charge of the project don’t have funding for future maintenance of the system, which could cost anywhere from $9 million to $18 million annually, reports say, and it’s not clear where the money will come from. There were additional issues identified in state audits of the system, which we’ve posted here, including $20 million in payments to a technical consultant questioned because Virginia wasn’t reviewing documentation to support the company’s invoices, meaning “they may have overpaid the consultant and the potential for future overpayment exists.” Our efforts to use open-government laws and obtain detailed records from state officials showing specifically how Virginia had spent its federal homeland security grants in recent years didn’t make it far. As mentioned, an official told us many of the records are scattered across the state and not located in the capital. We were promised a conference call to discuss possibly narrowing our request for limited records, but the state did not come through by deadline.
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