Star-Telegram (Texas) - by Darren Barbee
In the years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Texas has grabbed at least $1.7 billion in federal Homeland Security grants, with large chunks of the money spent to beef up law enforcement communication and border security. But a Star-Telegram examination of thousands of purchases also found a hodgepodge of spending, some of which might have taxpayers scratching their heads: a $21 fish tank in Seguin, a $24,000 latrine on wheels in Fort Worth, and a real pork project -- a hog catcher in Liberty County.
Homeland Security paid for body bags, garbage bags and Ziploc bags.
If taxpayers had a say-so, they might have gone along with some purchases, such as $24,012 in body armor for the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority. But what about the two 2011 Camaros, each $30,884, used in Kleberg County border enforcement?
A report this year by the inspector general of the U.S. Homeland Security Department criticized the state's management of Homeland Security grants from 2006 to 2008. While the audit showed that the state was generally efficient in administering the grant programs, it said the state passed along Homeland Security money to local governments without adequately defined goals and objectives to strengthen preparedness and response to attacks or disasters.
The state also failed to adequately monitor how cities and counties or others getting money were performing their responsibilities, the report says. Instead, the state asked local officials to rate their own performance. The audit recommended that the state develop goals, milestones and work tasks to assess and improve that performance.
Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which administers Homeland Security grants, said the inspector general just meant that the wording Texas used didn't match the grant guidance, and the issue has been addressed. As for monitoring, DPS said Friday that it is continuing work to improve and expand those activities.
But in a four-year span ending in 2009, DPS had evaluated only about 60 grant recipients a year with little or no emphasis on program performance, the inspector general's audit found. Spot checks by the inspector general revealed embarrassing lapses: A $250,000 first responder trailer had been parked since its purchase without much use. Bolt cutters had to be used to open another trailer because keys couldn't be found. Once inspectors broke in, they found two new mobile generators with flat tires. Elsewhere, a SWAT team's body armor had expired in 2003, according to the February report.
Other critics say the spending largely missed the mark, allowing for unproven technologies along with everyday items like framing hammers, envelopes and hanging folders. Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service has reported that likely terrorist targets, the nation's half-million miles of oil and gas pipelines, have been left vulnerable.
Last month, the FBI reported that a potential explosive device had been placed on a gas line in Oklahoma.
While state and city officials dispute criticisms about strategy -- "They don't know what they're talking about," said former Texas Homeland Security director Jay Kimbrough, -- it's hard to determine how much the spending has strengthened safety.
The Heritage Foundation found in a nationwide study that the influx of federal cash often didn't add to state and local homeland security spending so much as replace it.
Juan Ortiz, Fort Worth's emergency management coordinator, said grant-financed training has helped, and experience with hurricanes, power outages, the flooding of the Trinity and Lake Worth, and the Super Bowl helped prepare first responders. "Are we done? No. We still have a lot to do. ... We're really just beginning to scratch the surface," he said.
'Toys for boys'
To plug security gaps after 9-11, Congress appropriated billions. But it lacked a system and strategy to guide spending, according to a 2007 Heritage Foundation report.
In Texas, without clear standards and priorities, communities came to their own decisions.
Under a 2006 grant, the city of Alamo bought a pair of binoculars for $220.03, El Paso County bought five at $369.99 each, and the city of Winona bought a pair for $90.99. With the Alamo and El Paso grants, the binoculars' magnifying power was identical.
In 2005, Fort Worth used a grant to buy a $24,275 latrine. Bell County addressed the potty issue by buying two toilet seats with buckets for $25, while a council of governments bought a $441 collapsible toilet at Cabela's.
Ortiz said that the latrine "really pays a dividend." He noted responders won't have to find a contractor to provide such facilities at 2 a.m. on a holiday.
Still, would taxpayers, given the choice, have ponied up for a toilet on wheels? Oritz said it's not a question of whether the city would buy it but "how long would [it] have taken for that need to kind of rise to the top."
The city of Seguin decided to plan ahead for mass evacuations along the coast. It did so in part by buying a $21 aquarium, $47 in bird cages and $5 rodent cages, among other animal crates. The cages allow refugees to drop off their mice or goldfish on the way to San Antonio, said Pamela Centeno, a city planner who administers some of the grants. She wasn't sure how many fish the tank could hold.
In Liberty County, grants bought $6,167 worth of dog crates, feed pans and a hog catcher snare that documents say "will be used to aid in catching and controlling unruly swine at holding sites."
Tom Branch, the county's emergency management coordinator, laughed when told about his county's hog snare. "I don't know about that one," he said, chuckling. "We got a lot of unruly swine around here."
Federal equipment lists include hog catchers as allowable purchases.
In San Antonio, the city got a $2.99 million helicopter and a $349,916 Ballistic Engineered Armored Response vehicle, while North Richland Hills has a $225,913 armored vehicle.
Some places went Spy Kids with their purchases.
Houston SWAT got an "eye ball camera," at a cost of $4,800, records show. The camera is designed to be thrown into an area. It then uprights itself and gives a 360-degree view with listening capabilities. The city also has a probe that allows it to see through walls.
Fort Worth got clock radios, hats, neckties, glasses, key fobs and a thermometer with hidden cameras, as well as drinking cups, dry erasers and a tape measure with listening devices.
Police Maj. Paul Henderson said he couldn't elaborate on uses of the devices, saying it would defeat the purpose of having them.
"They were purchased as tools to protect our communities from threats both to the homeland and to our individual neighborhoods," he said. "We conduct many undercover operations and look for emerging surveillance technologies in order to keep up with the ever changing skill levels, dynamics, and tactics of the criminal environment."
Fort Worth's participation in federal tasks forces prompted the city to get up to speed with surveillance technology, Police Chief Jeff Halstead said.
With 2005 grants, state documents show that the city also bought "sprinkler head cameras" and a variety of downtown surveillance equipment to "to enhance observation and monitoring of downtown/Sundance Square."
"They're not necessarily monitoring folks on a daily basis," said Ortiz, who heads emergency management.
James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert for the Heritage Foundation, calls the devices "toys for boys."
"Since you're not paying for it, it's like free money," he said. "If it's free money, then you don't care what it's spent on."
Are we safer?
Gov. Rick Perry appointed the DPS in 2005 to hold the purse strings for Homeland Security grant funds. DPS, in turn, largely left it to the state's 24 regional councils of government to determine equipment needs in their communities.
Rick Nash, Bedford's emergency management coordinator said he's seen only rigorous checks and balances from the state. The city must submit invoices and pictures of equipment being installed into its mobile command post, as well as quarterly reports.
DPS monitors the city's progress "and then the utilization of the equipment," he said.
But across Texas, that's not what the inspector general found.
It reported that over the past several years, local cities and counties were rarely monitored for preparedness. While fiscal requirements were scrutinized, the report says the five-person compliance monitors and audit staff did not evaluate whether the state could prevent, respond to, recover from or mitigate an attack or catastrophe.
The governor's office said DPS would have to answer any questions about the inspector general's criticisms. DPS agreed with the inspector general's recommended fixes and said it was taking steps to provide the necessary leadership.
In a statement released late Friday, DPS said that beginning with 2010 funding, projects require establishment of milestones that are reported quarterly and reviewed by the grant coordinators. On-site monitoring visits have been expanded to include a review of program performance and progress, the statement says.
Still, critics say that for all the money spent, the federal and state homeland security departments don't really know what capabilities they have, whether they're the right kind and whether there is enough of what they have. That makes the $1.7 billion question -- are we safer? -- hard to address.
In El Paso, officials bought 10 personal radiation monitors. Irving used grant money to buy 14 units of a compound used to treat exposure to nerve agents and 380 units of 10 milligram "autoinject" diazepam, also known as Valium, "to be used in response to a WMD event."
Is that enough? DPS didn't answer that question, saying only that a jurisdiction isn't allowed to supplant its own funds with federal grants.
In 2006, DPS records show $253,000 was spent by several councils of government on "other operating expenses" sometimes noting it as "telecommunications, printing, etc." without further detail. DPS said its system requires expenses to be described and suggested more could be learned by contacting the "applicable jurisdiction" for each of the 200 entries.
Some of those jurisdictions are tight-lipped. How did a $100 podium, dry erase boards, extension cords and a $52,000 fence contribute to homeland security in Arlington? Hard to tell, because the city blotted out details about hundreds of purchases.
Irish Hancock, the city's emergency management administrator, did explain that hundreds of curvy ballpoint pens and promotional items were purchased to promote citizen teams that teach about preparedness and encourage training.
DPS says Texas has improved its ability to address terrorism over the past 10 years and is "optimally prepared to handle major man-made or natural catastrophes." The most significant vulnerability, it says, was the inability of law officers to get relevant information quickly. Among other measures taken to address that gap, grants paid for electronic fingerprint stations statewide to ensure the real-time check of fingerprints when suspects are booked into jail, DPS said.
Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, said he believes that homeland security spending nationally has improved communication and information-sharing among state and local governments.
"You can't prevent any potential disaster or accident from occurring," Amey said.
"You just hope that the Department of Homeland Security is picking the largest threats based on the best information they have at the time."
Not until the next terrorist threat or disaster, he said, will we really know whether the spending will pay off.