As much as $340 million in federal money to secure the Washington area against terrorism has been spent without a coordinated plan or a system for measuring how safe the region is, according to a new congressional report.
The 53-page study by the General Accounting Office criticizes the Department of Homeland Security's regional office for failing to track the spending and being unable to tell Congress whether critical security gaps remain.
State and local governments in the Washington region received a massive two-year infusion of federal anti-terrorism funds after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Washington and New York. Last year, Congress asked the GAO to assess the department's performance in protecting the capital area, identifying vulnerabilities and monitoring use of the federal grants.
The GAO report says that state and local governments took seven months to provide its investigators with grant amounts and that many lacked basic documentation of how money was spent. The study also found cases of likely duplication in purchasing decisions, including $2 million spent by local governments on similar police and fire command vehicles or similar hazardous-materials equipment.
"It's discouraging that, according to GAO, there's been no coordinated plan for spending the vast majority of federal emergency preparedness funds we've made available the past couple of years," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which ordered the review.
"Clearly, we need to better understand the significant challenges the Department of Homeland Security capital region office is facing in organizing and implementing effective regional preparedness programs," Davis said.
His panel will hold a hearing today on readiness in the capital region. Thomas J. Lockwood, the Homeland Security regional coordinator, who was named to the congressionally mandated post in April after a five-month vacancy, is to be among those testifying.
Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for Secretary Tom Ridge, said most of the grants the GAO examined were issued by Congress through other federal agencies before the Department of Homeland Security was created. He said the last $60 million has gone through a more rigorous process. The department is adopting operational standards for police and fire protective gear and is working to set national preparedness goals by next year, he added.
"We are moving from qualitative goals to more specific goals" with state and local leaders, Lockwood said. But, he added, "the federal government really shouldn't be in the position of mandating, 'Here is exactly how this will go.' This is a give-and-take between developing national standards and making sure they fit in a regional and local context."
Last week, Ridge described other proposals to address some of the problems noted in the GAO study, proposing to create multi-state purchasing agreements and to standardize terminology, grant-tracking systems, and state and local procurement staffing. He also proposed to ease procurement requirements after a department task force found that bottlenecks slowed the distribution of $8 billion in grants nationwide over the past three years.
George W. Foresman, homeland security adviser to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), acknowledged some failings in anti-terrorism spending in the region. But he said that after Sept. 11, 2001, regional officials decided to act swiftly, not necessarily to wait to develop detailed plans, performance measures and budget controls.
"They had to get something out the door," Foresman said, "and frankly, I think they did a pretty good job getting something out the door."
The GAO report says its auditors could find no reliable, readily available information on how local security budgets were developed, how priorities were set or how money was actually spent. It also said that no data on security gaps were available because no regionwide benchmarks on readiness had been developed.
As a result, it is difficult for the Homeland Security Department's regional coordinator "to fulfill its statutory responsibility to oversee and coordinate federal programs and domestic preparedness initiatives," GAO investigators concluded.
"It is difficult for us or [the coordinator] to determine what gaps, if any, remain in the emergency response capacities and preparedness," the report added.
The study found that because the department did not give enough feedback on preparedness plans required last year of the District, Maryland, Virginia and the rest of the nation, the local jurisdictions have little idea of what they should be doing better.
It also found that although federal law sets reporting requirements for federal grants of $300,000 or more, there is no central source tracking anti-terrorism grants of that amount in the capital region. Neither the regional coordinator nor state officials could provide complete lists of grants made to local jurisdictions, the GAO said, concluding, "This lack of supporting documentation indicates a lack of financial controls."
A review last year by The Washington Post also found a lack of coordination in spending the anti-terrorism money. The Nov. 23 Post article said that in the absence of clear federal guidelines, local and state leaders used some of the funds to plug budget gaps, spent millions on pet projects and steered contracts to political allies.
The article reported that although much of the spending helped bolster emergency preparedness, some of the money went to projects with questionable connections to homeland security. Those projects included a District summer jobs program, an environmental study of a D.C. site that officials hope to redevelop, an alarm system for a Prince George's County prosecutors' office and a custom-built fireboat for a volunteer fire company in Prince William County.