Chasing security with dollars

Sun Reporter

For three days in Howard County last year, 29 veterinarians from Marylandand around the nation honed their homeland-security skills by practicing therescue of a tame llama named Dexter and his sidekick, Karma, a Tennesseewalking horse.

Clad in matching blue coveralls and hardhats, vets from as far away asMinnesota and Missouri surrounded Dexter and hooked him to a harness hitchedto a backhoe, then pretended to save the docile beast by gently hoisting himoff a manicured lawn in Lisbon. Then, they ministered to Karma, who hadstretched out on command in the nearby woods as if his leg were broken.

Money to pay for this "large-animal rescue" drill came from federalhomeland security grants to the state. The exotic expenditure cost taxpayers$17,234, including airfare, meals and lodging for many of the visitingveterinarians and an honorarium for the animals' performance.

"If it was a state fair where there were several hundred animals and thebarn was bombed ... and we needed assistance beyond the number ofveterinarians in the state of Maryland, we would try to get them wherever wecould," said Dr. Jacob Casper, coordinator of disaster services for the stateDepartment of Agriculture, in defense of the exercise.

A Sun review of nearly 10,000 pages of state homeland security documentsshows that most of the new federal terrorism preparedness money managed by theMaryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) - $161 million has been allottedsince 2002 - is being directed toward the critical needs of first responders.

But records and interviews also show that Maryland is so flush withanti-terrorism grant funds and spending authority is so broad that the statehas struggled, at times, to manage the money. In some cases - such as thellama roundup - spending appears to stretch the definition of homelandsecurity.

"Does it pass the common sense test?" James Jay Carafano, a homelandsecurity analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, asked of thelarge-animal rescue. "Does it make the nation safer as a whole? I don't thinkso."

The new money flowing from the federal government has increased MEMA'sannual grant responsibilities 20-fold, from about $2.8 million before 9/11 to$60 million in 2004. The bulk of the funds have gone to outfitting emergencycrews with such state-of-the-art security staples as mobile command centers,800-megahertz radios and HAZMAT trucks. But as early as 2003, MEMA becameoverwhelmed by the volume of purchases and stopped keeping itemizedspreadsheets of spending by the state's 27 jurisdictions, a mix of cities,counties and MEMA, said Gary Harrity, the state anti-terrorism coordinator forMEMA.

"Keeping track of who was buying what was my biggest downfall," saidHarrity, an accountant. "Like if you wanted to know how many trucks have beenbought in the state, right now I couldn't tell you. ... I'd have to pull eachvoucher."

Until last month, when 1 1/2 positions were added, MEMA had a crew of onlytwo tracking homeland security receipts and purchases and checking themagainst grant rules.

MEMA Director John W. Droneburg III said staff additions had long beenplanned, but state hiring freezes, uncertain funding and the normal drag ofbureaucracy delayed the process.

"It's just the way state government moves - slowly," he said.

Until a $380,000 computerized grant management system is installed in 2007,MEMA will have to keep tallying purchases by phoning the jurisdictions or bysearching invoices.

No federal audits have been conducted on Maryland's books. The only outsideexamination has been by two investigators from the House AppropriationsCommittee who did a "spot inquiry" last summer, a one-day check of the books,according to MEMA and one of the investigators, John N. Phillips.

Phillips declined to discuss the investigation, but MEMA spokesman JeffWelsh said the state was not told of any problems or irregularities.

Between 2002 and 2004, the state was allotted more than $115 million fromthe major homeland security grant programs, but because of loose federaldeadlines for reimbursement, it has only submitted receipts to Washington fora third, or $35 million. This year, Washington promised Maryland another $45.4million in terrorism- preparedness grants.

All told, MEMA has managed about $161 million in homeland security grantssince 9/11. And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced last week that Marylandis receiving an additional $489,000 in bioterrorism preparedness funds fromthe national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Baltimore City willreceive the most - $200,000 - with the rest being divided among 11 Marylandcounties.

"You can go through $160 million or $170 million and make judgments aboutindividual expenditures," Droneburg said. "We can all do that and come up withour own opinions. But we're just now getting organized and are able to takeindividual projects ... and pull the pieces together for prevention andinteroperability and protecting our infrastructure."

He said statewide standardization of emergency communications - orinteroperability - remains the core focus of Maryland's homeland security.More than $307,000 in grant money was spent last year on interoperabilityconsulting, and $9 million will be spent this year on the infrastructure -communication towers, fiber-optic cables and the like - that allows firstresponders to talk on the same frequency. Any supplementary spending isrelatively minor, Droneburg said.

Because the state shifted its priorities this year from equipment purchasesto cooperative programs such as training and communications, jurisdictionswill now only have to identify for MEMA where their homeland-security moneywill go. Previously, they had to provide lists of equipment and estimatedcosts.

The new categories are vaguely defined, such as "To sustain homelandsecurity planning" or "To enhance capabilities to respond to chemical andbiological events."

This does not indicate a relaxing of oversight, Droneburg said, becauseinvoices still must be submitted for reimbursement: "There's an implicit trustthat they have an understanding of their needs. Before they needed a lot ofassistance top down; now they should have a working knowledge."

Training exercises, such as large-animal rescues, are part of theall-hazards readiness prescribed by the Department of Homeland Security's newNational Response Plan, which promises "a safer, more secure America."

"Homeland security does not just equal anti-terrorism," said Larry Jacksonof the Department of Homeland Security. "It equals preparedness. It equalsresponse. It equals recovery from disasters - manmade and natural."

This explains why a 10-year-old llama and a mild-mannered red roan horseare such practiced actors today. Soon after anti-terrorism funding was boostedby Washington in 2002, Dexter and Karma began traveling like a circus withSouth Carolina's Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Inc.

"9/11 changed my personal life," said Dr. Tomas Gimenez, a veterinarian andClemson University professor who conducts the animal drills with his wife,Rebecca. "Before 9/11, we might do the training two to three times a year; nowwe do it 15 to 20 times a year."

Casper, a veterinarian with the state since 1963, cannot recalllarge-animal rescue training occurring in Maryland before 9/11.

Allan Schwartz, a Lisbon horse trainer who assisted Gimenez in the drills,said they are primarily intended to teach veterinarians how to save largeanimals injured by storms and overturned trailers - not by al-Qaida attacks.

Homeland security analyst Carafano, co-author of Winning the Long War:Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom, saidthe expense to train vets is symptomatic of well-intended federal programsthat swell out of control.

"At some point I think Congress will get a handle on it and ... the moneywill go where it is most needed," he said. "We just haven't gotten there yet."

To date, grants from the Department of Homeland Security total about $13billion, and the money keeps coming, although the deadlines on previousallotments and spending haven't expired, and a backlog builds.

Even as $2.4 billion in the major homeland security grants were awardednationwide this year, $4.1 billion remained "stuck in the pipeline,"complained Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of California, the House HomelandSecurity Committee chairman.

"We know the terrorists are plotting to attack us, and we can't besatisfied with business as usual," Cox told Congress this spring in arguingfor a new first-responder bill. "We need to get this terrorism-preparednessmoney into the hands of those who need it most, and we need to know that thismoney is addressing our highest security needs."

Cox's optimistically named bill - "The Faster and Smarter Funding for FirstResponders Act" - passed this month in the House and, along with a companionbill in the Senate, could affect the five major anti-terrorism grants. Thebills would ideally direct a greater percentage of terrorism-preparednessmoney toward high-risk populations, shorten federal deadlines forreimbursement and penalize states that are slow in spending grant awards.

The current formula for grants was hatched in the Office of DomesticPreparedness before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Cox said. Its distribution isprimarily based on population size.

At the heart of Cox's bill is a competitive grant process managed by ahomeland security grant committee. It would be driven by risk assessmentsgleaned from government intelligence reports and Washington's analysis ofvulnerable infrastructure.

It would also award nearly all the money based on the merit of grant plansrather than on a predetermined formula. Under his bill, Cox said, if Marylandwanted to train vets to rescue llamas, it would have to compete with grantproposals from, say, the fire department in New York City.

"It would be Dexter vs. the FDNY," Cox said, laughing. "The need to reformthe current grant-making process is ... clear. This [$6.5] billion bottleneckjust in DHS grants alone makes this fact indisputable."

Federal rules today allow for slack in the allocating and reimbursements ofgrants, Droneburg said. In Maryland, local spending invoices for 2003 wereonly due to the state last month, and MEMA is still processing them.

Of the $60 million allocated to Maryland for fiscal year 2004, about $15million is in the process of being reimbursed by Washington, but almost all ofit has been committed to projects, Droneburg said.

The invoices from 2004 aren't due until Nov. 30, when they will collect inpiles at MEMA's offices.

The state's homeland-security purchase binders - books larger thanunabridged dictionaries - are stored in Reisterstown at the rifle-guarded CampFretterd Military Reservation, a sprawling brownstone that resembles a schooland houses MEMA and the Maryland Army National Guard. The receipts, projectproposals, memoranda of agreements and interoffice e-mails were obtained byThe Sun through the state Public Information Act.

Droneburg said the computerized system expected to be installed in 2007would eventually create paperless recordkeeping and track grant purchasesautomatically.

Meanwhile, the task of recording the equipment bought withhomeland-security money is performed with rudimentary tools. Hundreds ofmemoranda of agreements and thousands of receipts and reports are printed out,stapled, punched with holes to fit in three-ring binders, then meticulouslyfiled by hand. Each needs to be checked against state and federal rules, andsubmitted for approval and reimbursement; only then are checks cut and mailed.

An aquarium with koi on Harrity's desk is a tranquil backdrop to thedemanding assignment. The easygoing MEMA accountant says it relaxes him. But anarrative of e-mails stored in the binders occasionally belies the outwardcalm of MEMA's library-quiet office.

In one, dated April 14, 2004, a state auditor was juggling purchaserevisions and confusing acronyms with the state Domestic Preparedness Divisionwhen she appeared, finally, to grow exasperated:

"OK, OK, you are driving me crazy. ... Who is OCME - is that Ocean City orsome other obscure groupie??? ... I believe I'm beginning to need somethingthat begins with D, either Death or Drunkeness. Maybe Double D - Death byDrunkeness????"

Sun staff writer Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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