Florida Questions Orlando's Use of DHS Grant Money

MARK SCHLUEB
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

State officials are investigating whether the Orlando Fire Department wrongly took more than $345,000 in homeland-security grant money to pay for firefighter-training expenses that didn't exist.

The state Fire Marshal's Office says the money was supposed to cover the cost of training firefighters how to handle hazardous materials and rescue trapped victims from the rubble of collapsed buildings, specialties that took on new importance in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But the department spent the money on trucks and other equipment instead -- costs that weren't eligible under the 2005 grants.

Orlando firefighters did attend the classes, but the city didn't pay them overtime and never assigned other firefighters to fill in for those who were in class, known as backfill.

"What was supposed to be reimbursed was the actual cost of backfill and overtime," said Nina Banister, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Financial Services, which includes the fire marshal. "It appeared when we approved the grant, that was how the money was spent. That is what we approved."

Fire Chief Jim Reynolds, who was a deputy chief at the time, acknowledged Wednesday that the department had been reimbursed for expenses it had not incurred. But he said the guidelines for the program were vague and unclear, and a representative of the Fire Marshal's Office told them it was OK to seek those nonexistent personnel costs.

"That is what the state asked for: what it would have cost," Reynolds said. "There was no intent for the city to receive money it shouldn't have."

No extra personnel costs

The department submitted a request for reimbursement in June 2005, along with spreadsheets listing dozens of firefighters who had attended the classes. The spreadsheets included the cost of each firefighter's salary and benefits for the time they were in training, though in reality the city had no additional personnel expenses.

Still, the state sent the Fire Department two checks, one for $227,322 and another for $117,923, records show. The state administered the program, but the money came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

District Chief Toby Bevelacqua supervises the special-operations teams and applied for the grant funds. In his funding request, Bevelacqua said, "As we discussed, the reimbursement is at your discretion depending on the class costs and expenses."

Bevelacqua's memo does not specifically note that the expenses did not exist, however. And although the state has not concluded its review, Banister said her agency never granted permission for other costs.

"We are looking at all of it to see what was required, what was approved and how it was spent," she said.

Budget records indicate that instead of paying firefighters, the city spent the money on equipment, including emergency medical supplies and three Ford trucks that cost $43,500 each.

Union told authorities

The grant problem came to light because of a dispute with the labor union that represents Orlando's firefighters. Union leaders filed a grievance against the city because firefighters had been told to attend some classes on their days off.

When union officials discovered what appeared to be funding irregularities in the grant paperwork, on the advice of their attorney they notified state and federal authorities. They also formally requested whistleblower protection, fearing they might face retaliation.

"What we saw was the city getting money for expenses they didn't have. We saw reimbursement grants for payments to firefighters who had not been paid," union President Steve Clelland said. "When we came to the realization that there was possibly fraud, we felt we had no choice but to report it."

The union notified the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Florida Attorney General's Office and the Department of Financial Services. At least one of the agencies notified the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha said the FDLE is reviewing the complaint to determine whether to open a formal investigation.

Banister said she didn't know of similar problems with other Florida fire departments that have sought reimbursement money.

But several states have found poor oversight of hundreds of millions of dollars in Homeland Security grants that have filtered down to local governments since the 2001 attacks. In 2005, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a report critical of states' administration of security and disaster-recovery grants in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C.

HOMELAND-SECURITY GRANTS

$227,322: Grant paid for firefighters

to attend hazardous-materials training

$117,923: Grant paid for firefighters

to attend structural-collapse training

$0: Orlando's actual costs for sending firefighters to training

WHERE SOME OF THE MONEY WENT

$130,500: 3 Ford trucks

$15,000: 5 emergency medical packs

for reserve fire engines

$3,947: Satellite phone