Report: wasteful homeland security spending

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In the years since the World Trade Towers came down, $3 billion in homeland security grants have flowed into the state.

Marin County got more than $100,000 for surveillance equipment to guard its San Geronimo Water Treatment Plant against terrorist attack.

"The equipment that we bought was wireless and the problem that we had was because of the profusion of wireless devices that people use in their homes these days. The signal didn't come through very clearly," said Marin Water District GM Paul Helliker.

Four years after Marin received the money, state auditors found $67,000 worth of cameras and other gear still in the boxes. It hadn't been used.

"And you still have the gear?" asked ABC7's Dan Noyes.

"We still have the gear," said Helliker.

"In boxes?" asked Noyes.

"It's in boxes, ready for anybody who wants it. I don't know if we're going to put it on Craigslist or--," said Helliker.

The state ordered Marin to pay back the money this year.

That's just one of the cases uncovered by California Watch, a new non-profit group of reporters assembled by Berkeley's Center for Investigative Reporting.

"Our hope is that by working collaboratively with other news organizations around the state we can actually have an impact," said Louis Freedberg, California Watch.

California Watch obtained 160 reports filed by state auditors after site visits to local agencies that received homeland security grants.

"It just seemed to us, especially in the years immediately following 9/11, that a lot of these communities without a strong administrative backbone weren't prepared for this huge influx of cash," said G.W. Schulz, California Watch.

And several local agencies made some questionable purchases:

  • The L.A. County sheriff's terrorism unit bought a $20,000 Monte Carlo sports coupe.

  • The police department in the Placer County town of Lincoln spent $47,000 on computer software that was never used.

  • Colusa County tried to use homeland security money to buy a $321 lawnmower.

    "A lawnmower absolutely makes no sense and it's not something that would ever, ever occur in this county," said Sonoma County Emergency Manager Sandy Covall-Alves.

    Covall-Alves showed the I-Team the equipment Sonoma County bought with its $8 million in homeland security grants: a mobile operations center, a satellite communications truck, a heavy-duty Segway scooter for bomb technicians who wear 80 pounds of protective gear.

    "We think it gives the deputy more time on target. We know that when he has to walk 300 feet, at the end of the walk, he'd going to be very tired," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Bomb Squad Sgt. Mark Essick.

    At Sonoma State University, auditors questioned why the campus police chief bought a $2,300 plasma TV with grant money. They concluded the plasma was "not on the approved equipment list."

    "Any soap operas?" asked Noyes.

    "I don't have the slightest idea," said Sonoma State Police Chief Nate Johnson.

    "Watching any comedies on there, anything else?" asked Noyes.

    "Not that I know of. I'm sure some people sneak every now and then and sneak something on," said Johnson.

    The plasma in a conference room was tuned to court TV on our visit. But Chief Johnson was able to convince the auditors it plays a valid emergency preparedness role.

    "It's used primarily for training, and disaster training and police officer training," said Johnson.

    On site visits, auditors also uncovered shoddy bookkeeping. The city of Oakland had to repay $92,000 because of double billing; and AC Transit broke the rules by failing to get competitive bids for five explosives detectors it bought for $97,000.

    "Government rules on this, especially federal rules, are very strict. The more competitive government purchasing is for private suppliers, the better deals taxpayers are going to get," said Schulz.

    So the big question is: after $3 billion in homeland security grants, is California safer than it was before 9/11? Are we more prepared for a terrorist attack?

    "Oh, absolutely. We're much safer and better prepared in terms of the investments that we've made," said Matt Bettenhausen, CA Emergency Management Agency.

    Bettenhausen is the governor's homeland security adviser and head of the California Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the spending.

    But a report from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general concludes California's preparedness goals weren't specific or measurable, which meant the state "was not able to assess first responder capabilities or justify continued grants."

    "You know, they've looked at it in terms of our grant applications and reviewed our strategies. They've also been peer reviewed, and last year we had the number one rated peer reviewed application and strategy in the country, so I'm not quite sure where that's coming from," said Bettenhausen.

    Related Video:
    >> Watch the entire interview with Matt Bettenhausen of the CA Emergency Management Agency

    MORE:

    Full story from California Watch
    Is California ready for millions in stimulus funds if managing homeland security grants proved so difficult?

    Fear and Fortune
    Sept. 11 hastened a booming homeland security industry. One southern California company still struggled to get ahead.

    Video slideshow: How was the money spent?
    Reporter G.W. Schulz narrates a slideshow of the items purchased by California agencies with anti-terrorism grants.

    Map: Questionable Costs
    An interactive map shows how much your county in California received from homeland security grants‹and how they spent the money.

    This story was provided us to by our partners at California Watch. Read the full story at www.centerforinvestigativereporting.org

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