Misspent Homeland Security money

October 29, 2009 7:16:32 PM PDT
Misspending your tax dollars in the name of national security. It's a problem across the country, but the ABC7 I-Team has found a prime example in Alameda County.

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Not only did AC Transit violate federal purchasing guidelines for Homeland Security grants, but it bought equipment that it never used and probably never needed.

Terrorists used airplanes in the 9/11 attack, but in the years since, their weapon of choice has been the improvised explosive device or IED. The homemade bombs have caused tremendous death and destruction to American convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Madrid's train system, and to London's subway and a double-decker bus.

AC Transit officials felt their buses could be a target, so they spent almost $100,000 of Homeland Security grants on four bomb detectors called "vapor tracers." But, there is a problem.

"My question would be, was the bomb squad involved in the decision making process," said emergency management consultant Lu Canton. "And that to me is a major mistake, because these are the people that are going to be using the equipment."

AC Transit made the decision and handed over the vapor tracers to the Contra Costa and Alameda County sheriff's departments to use on the buses.

Asked about how the devices are being used, J.D. Nelson with the Alameda County Sheriff's bomb squad said, "Well, practically, we don't use it very much. It has some drawbacks to it that are inherent with its design."

The bomb squad tells the I-Team the unit is too large to keep in a patrol car. Once on scene, it takes 20 minutes to warm up. But the biggest drawback is that an officer has to walk right up to a bomb for the vapor tracer to get a reading.

"Well, the danger is obvious," said Nelson. "If the device explodes you've injured or killed your deputy that's using the device."

Instead, they call on one of their specially trained bomb-sniffing dogs. "Bak" sits when he finds explosives. Or, if they've identified a suspicious package, they will send in the robot. The bomb squad refuses to use the vapor tracer.

Noyes: "They won't use this thing, they tell me that. What's your response to that?"

Clarence Johnson (AC Transit spokesman): "Well, they're probably right."

After we contacted AC Transit for comment, the agency's security director urged the sheriff's departments to start using the vapor tracers. Butm they discovered the units need upgrades and new batteries. The vapor tracers have sat idle for three years.

"In hindsight, if we were to have to make a similar purchase, we probably would not," said Johnson.

Canton says this is a common problem in post-9/11 America. The federal government has dumped $3 billion into the state for Homeland Security, and local agencies sometimes burned through the money without much thought.

"You find a lot of equipment still in boxes, you find a lot of equipment people haven't used, technology that maybe by now is outmoded," said Canton. "So, I think unfortunately, there's a lot of this that's going on."

With the vapor tracers, there's another issue. Investigators from the California Office of Homeland Security concluded AC Transit broke federal purchasing guidelines by failing to get competitive bids for the IED detectors.

"The idea is to ensure open competition, to ensure the lowest possible price, to ensure the best quality for that price, to give the taxpayers the best deal you can," said Canton.

"They were bought with the best of all possible intentions, and they still can be useful," said Johnson. "Are they ideal? I'm not one to say, but they certainly do have useful applications, in some regards."

Johnson says AC Transit might now use the vapor tracers to sweep their buildings for bombs.

The Contra Costa Sheriff's Department declined to talk about their vapor tracer, except to say it's broken and that no one would be available for an on-camera interview.

View the brochure on the vapor tracer and read reports from the Office of Homeland Security that were critical of AC Transit in a new I-Team blog.

We first heard of the vapor tracer through our association with CalWatch, a new consortium of investigative reporters. You can find links to their work, as well, in the blog.

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