State audit reveals problems in Homeland Security grants

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(Host) State Auditor Randy Brock says Vermont needs to do a better job in overseeing millions of dollars in federal Homeland Security funds.

Brock released an audit today that uncovered problems in three grants administered by the Department of Public Safety.

The auditor says he turned up evidence of sham transactions and improper payments.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Over the last five years, Vermont has received about $60 million in hundreds of homeland security grants.

The investigation by state auditor Randy Brock focused on just three of those grants. Although the review was limited, Brock says his findings point to the need for stronger state oversight.

(Brock) “Clearly, this was a small number of towns among many, many millions of dollars worth of grants. But it is a wake-up call that we are going to look further in the audit that we do in 2006.”

(Dillon) Brock says the problems he uncovered include the village of Johnson getting reimbursed twice for equipment lost in a fire.

He says the town of Norwich claimed a 14-year old generator was recently purchased in order to qualify for matching funds. And he says a consortium of Rutland County towns used false documentation to obtain grant money.

Brock says the state Department of Public safety should seek reimbursement for about $31,000 in grant money from the three local government entities.

(Brock) “It’s a not huge amount of money but every penny of taxpayers’ dollars is important. I think every taxpayer has the right to expect that public officials are going to use their money appropriately and properly. And I think the second thing that’s particularly important and particularly troubling in these cases is that in clearly in two of the cases there was a definite attempt to deceive, to present information in order to obtain federal money that was false.”

(Dillon) Brock says the Department of Public Safety missed clear signals that some of the payments were improper. He said that department personnel apparently helped towns circumvent the proper grant procedures.

(Brock) “In two cases, they were receiving guidance from a DPS person, and that is particularly troubling.”

(Dillon) But the audit also points out that the problems were first identified through the Department’s own internal audits.

Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper says there are no widespread or systemic problems in the grant program.

(Sleeper) “There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that anything was done with the funds to divert or anything to suggest any type of criminal conduct. It’s simply the question of were the funds utilized in the prescribed manner according to the language of the granting process?'”

(Dillon) And Sleeper disagreed with Brock’s allegation that the department had helped towns go around the grant procedures.

(Sleeper) “I would never characterize it as someone intentionally circumventing the process. Absolutely not. What we need to remember is that these are small communities, many of them have absolutely no experience in managing federal grants or federal funds. And we’re attempting to help them through the process. And when they have questions, we try and interpret that question as best we can, ask our federal partners and give them a response.”

(Dillon) The auditor’s report recommends that the Department improve its internal controls to prevent misuse of the federal matching funds.

Commissioner Sleeper says his department is doing that. He says the department has hired an auditor and has plans to hire another.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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