The nation’s first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, in 2003 pointed to West Virginia as an example of preparedness done right while standing on the steps of the state capital building in Charleston. “Your regional approach and your use of common training, exercises and equipment is setting an example that the other states must follow,” the Charleston Gazette quoted him as saying. What Ridge didn’t know at the time was that several of the state’s top homeland security officials would resign, retire or be fired in a few short years. The departures occurred amid allegations that hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal homeland security grants and other public safety funds were wasted, abused or mismanaged. When the smoke cleared, the state was unable to pay $5 million it owed to the federal government and contractors. State officials among other things had permitted local homeland security grant recipients to spend over $1 million on purchases that weren’t permitted under federal rules. “I hope it doesn’t come down to state taxpayers footing the bill, but mismanagement happened,” a spokesman told the Associated Press in late 2005. “We’re going to have to pay for it somehow.” West Virginia eventually was held responsible for paying $1.1 million back to the federal government. But documents we obtained show the Department of Homeland Security had earlier designated more than $8.2 million as “questionable costs.” Dubious purchases included numerous trucks, $3,000 worth of lapel pins, $8,000 in trips to Washington, D.C., and Chicago, thousands of dollars in cell phone charges, furniture, office supplies, a Taser and more. Debts owed to vendors totaling $2.4 million that resulted from poor money handling had to be covered using an account controlled by the governor. During the summer of 2006, the federal government ranked West Virginia as less prepared for a disaster than any other state in the nation concluding that none of the areas examined, such as plans for evacuation and emergency communications, could be deemed “sufficient.” Officials there disputed the conclusion, however. The state invested more than $3 million in 10 rapid-response trailers authorities intended to distribute across the state that were packed with equipment for analyzing potentially dangerous chemicals, medical supplies for treating disaster victims, a watchtower for looming above crowds of people and more. Costing up to $443,000 each, reporters from the Gazette later determined that despite investing so much, the trailers experienced only limited use. Journalists also learned that a state homeland security official who proudly showcased the vehicles to the public after they were purchased once worked for a critical subcontractor on the deal and his father managed the company involved, West Virginia Truck and Trailer. Investigators examined the procurement but did not ultimately accuse the duo of wrongdoing. The controversy didn’t stop there, and West Virginia newspapers detailed the fallout. One official in charge of anti-terrorism and emergency preparedness grants first resigned in April of 2005 as investigators probed his use of a state airplane and helicopter. The man, Neal Sharp, claimed he was pressured to carry out “political favors” for others with the federal funds and insisted that he’d done nothing improper. But reporters noted that Sharp made large purchases with a state-issued credit card and took multiple expensive trips in aircraft owned by the state. Sharp allegedly hired his son to work in a warehouse used by the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and also awarded himself and others thousands of dollars in overtime. He told the press those expenses, covered by federal grants, were due to his team putting in long hours loading a warehouse with public safety equipment. Indeed, auditors complained as recently as 2007 that the homeland security division had stockpiled nearly $8 million worth of gear in a central facility that was not distributed to local governments as it was supposed to be. Additionally, an audit found that officials “did not have a dollar value of the inventory on hand” and that no physical inventory was done at the end of 2007. Reports show those findings by auditors were eventually resolved. Meanwhile, the Gazette obtained flight records showing that Sharp had traveled on state aircraft 19 times in a year-and-a-half. He also hired a private airplane five times when the state’s aircraft weren’t available. All of his travelling cost approximately $60,000 and was charged to homeland security grants. One relatively short, in-state jaunt totaled $1,332. If he’d driven, the charge to taxpayers would have been only about $120. On two occasions, officials claimed they needed a helicopter to conduct “reconnaissance” before Bridge Day in West Virginia’s Fayette County due to fears that terrorists might target the public celebration. Residents turn out for the event annually to see base jumpers leap from the the New River Gorge Bridge. Other records publicized by newspapers showed that Sharp had made frequent use of a credit card funded by taxpayers filling up with gas on weekends and holidays, and even when he was out sick. They discovered later that Sharp had in fact been fired from his previous job at a training center for emergency responders “because he set up a business that could have siphoned money from the program,” according to the Gazette. No one had apparently contacted the center when he applied for his new job. The company planned to teach classes similar to what the center offered. Gazette reporters also disclosed that Sharp had been fired from yet another job before that time at a chemical company where he worked as an emergency response coordinator. From there the dominoes continued to fall. West Virginia’s emergency services director was fired after notifying other top public safety officials of alleged abuse and mismanagement in the homeland security program controlled by Sharp. Then a bureaucrat in charge of the division’s budget resigned without public explanation. A regional response coordinator also left quietly, although investigators were looking into his use of overtime. And the homeland security official whose father managed a subcontractor doing business with the state resigned, too. A newer military affairs and public safety director, James Spears, has since sought to assure the public that reforms were put in place, including a panel to monitor grant expenditures and prevent future misspending. Our attempts to obtain records such as spreadsheets from West Virginia showing generally how the state has used federal homeland security grants since 2001 weren’t successful. We first sent a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, but it was passed on to a number of offices without us receiving any of the material 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