Kansas

It has been difficult convincing Kansas to make available the records showing how its homeland security grants have been spent and managed since 2001. We first filed a request in August of 2008 under the Kansas Open Records Act looking for lists documenting all equipment and services invoiced and paid for under a series of federal grant programs that all states have benefitted from. A colonel for the Kansas Highway Patrol, which is responsible for overseeing grant spending in the Sunflower State, rejected the request citing security exemptions: “I believe the disclosure of this information would jeopardize statewide security measures as coordinated by each Kansas county emergency manager and Regional Homeland Security Council, thus these listings have not been released.” We weren’t satisfied and believed that like every other state, Kansas had a responsibility to tell the public how it had spent millions of dollars in anti-terrorism funds. Investigative reporter Mike McGraw of the Kansas City Star suggested that we appeal the denial to the state’s attorney general. We did so arguing that our request did not include terrorism-response plans, potentially sensitive lists of major assets or intelligence information about possible threats. Several months after initially filing the request, we won becoming the first news organization to receive limited information about how Kansas had used preparedness cash between 1999 and 2006. The document is available for download here, but unfortunately, Kansas officials still insisted on excluding certain types of key information, such as jurisdiction (although some county references slipped through). The document shows that among other things, Kansas spent at least $342,000 on high-tech robots equipped to neutralize bombs. Other purchases included digital cameras, thermal image devices, decontamination shelters, equipment trailers and costly rescue trucks, portable radiation detection, surveillance cameras and more. As many other states have done, the Kansas Highway Patrol contracted with an obscure but very large company called Fisher Scientific – now Thermo Fisher following a merger – to control equipment purchases made by local communities and ease the state’s administrative burden. The outfit has long done business with government agencies, distributing safety and laboratory equipment to them through a network of suppliers. Knowing grant amounts would increase substantially after Sept. 11, the highway patrol asked Fisher to develop a web-based catalog from which cities and counties could select the preparedness gear they wanted. And balloon they did. Readiness grants awarded by the federal government to Kansas increased from $670,000 in 1999 to $29 million in 2004. Fisher already had a contract in place with the state for laboratory supplies, and the patrol realized it could broaden the terms so counties wouldn’t have to competitively bid out their purchases and because the Internet-based purchasing would ensure grantees only bought equipment allowed by federal guidelines. But auditors in 2006 said the state should have at least “seriously considered” requiring Fisher to compete with other business for such an arrangement. Kansas-based companies and local officials they had previous relationships with also complained that Fisher’s distribution network limited who could capitalize on the new rush to buy preparedness equipment. And sometimes, they argued, items were available for cheaper prices outside of what Fisher offered. So the highway patrol renegotiated the contract but stayed with Fisher without bidding it to multiple competitors, according to a report from the state’s Legislative Division of Post Audit. Counties could now select the companies they wanted to do business with. However, the purchases still had to flow through Fisher, a middleman that was allowed to charge a mark-up of five to 12 percent, which sometimes meant thousands of dollars for a single mobile-command vehicle or communications system. From the viewpoint of Kansas counties, “Fisher merely assigns a catalog number and charges a fee.” The patrol argued that centralizing grant responsibilities with Fisher made the process more efficient and cost-effective. But auditors guessed that Fisher tacked nearly $1 million in special charges onto the price tags of equipment during 2005 alone. They weren’t able to obtain more reliable figures from the company, which countered that it earned discounts on the state’s behalf by making purchases in volume. “We estimated these fees because Fisher Scientific officials said they couldn’t provide us with this information,” the report concluded, even though the company did maintain detailed lists of third-party purchases. By 2007, the state planned to divide its emergency response efforts into regions rather than counties, and local grantees would not be required to utilize the Fisher contract. But other states have signed deals to use Fisher’s “Quartermaster” program, as it’s called. California ended such an arrangement quietly in late 2007. When we sent California a public-records request in an effort to learn how much the company may have profited from homeland security grants there, officials responded that no one knew where the documents were located, including original contract files with Fisher. In Texas, local jurisdictions had a list of options they could choose from, one of them being to purchase through Fisher, the state’s “prime vendor” for readiness equipment, according to published reports. But auditors there in 2005 examined just a sample of invoices and found that local governments using Fisher spent as much as $1 million more than those that relied on another method for comparable gear. “The reported advantages of purchasing from the prime vendor are not always achieved,” the report determined. “ … The prime vendor’s equipment was sometimes overpriced. Some local jurisdictions were aware of the high mark-up and used the local purchase method instead. One local jurisdiction reported that it saved approximately $52,000 by bidding out equipment locally.” It turns out that perhaps the city of Wichita should have been put in charge of overseeing federal grant spending in Kansas. Severe winter storms slammed the southern area of the state in 2005, and FEMA provided city leaders with $6.7 million in recovery assistance. The Inspector General’s Office for the Department of Homeland Security showed up in 2009 for a standard look at the funds and gave Wichita high marks. The same can’t be said for many other cities that have received federal disaster aid. According to a report from the IG: “[Wichita’s] debris removal procurement procedures and contract file maintenance were exemplary; and the city’s contract administration system ensured contractors performed according to contract terms, conditions, and specifications.”

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