Chasing security with dollars

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

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

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

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

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

But records and interviews also show that Maryland is so flush with anti-terrorism grant funds and spending authority is so broad that the state has struggled, at times, to manage the money. In some cases - such as the llama roundup - spending appears to stretch the definition of homeland security.

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

The new money flowing from the federal government has increased MEMA's annual 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 emergency crews with such state-of-the-art security staples as mobile command centers, 800-megahertz radios and HAZMAT trucks. But as early as 2003, MEMA became overwhelmed by the volume of purchases and stopped keeping itemized spreadsheets of spending by the state's 27 jurisdictions, a mix of cities, counties and MEMA, said Gary Harrity, the state anti-terrorism coordinator for MEMA.

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

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

MEMA Director John W. Droneburg III said staff additions had long been planned, but state hiring freezes, uncertain funding and the normal drag of bureaucracy 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 by searching invoices.

No federal audits have been conducted on Maryland's books. The only outside examination has been by two investigators from the House Appropriations Committee 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 Jeff Welsh said the state was not told of any problems or irregularities.

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

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

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

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

Because the state shifted its priorities this year from equipment purchases to cooperative programs such as training and communications, jurisdictions will now only have to identify for MEMA where their homeland-security money will go. Previously, they had to provide lists of equipment and estimated costs.

The new categories are vaguely defined, such as "To sustain homeland security planning" or "To enhance capabilities to respond to chemical and biological events."

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

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

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

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

"9/11 changed my personal life," said Dr. Tomas Gimenez, a veterinarian and Clemson 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; now we do it 15 to 20 times a year."

Casper, a veterinarian with the state since 1963, cannot recall large-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 large animals 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, said the expense to train vets is symptomatic of well-intended federal programs that swell out of control.

"At some point I think Congress will get a handle on it and ... the money will 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 $13 billion, and the money keeps coming, although the deadlines on previous allotments and spending haven't expired, and a backlog builds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The state's homeland-security purchase binders - books larger than unabridged dictionaries - are stored in Reisterstown at the rifle-guarded Camp Fretterd Military Reservation, a sprawling brownstone that resembles a school and houses MEMA and the Maryland Army National Guard. The receipts, project proposals, memoranda of agreements and interoffice e-mails were obtained by The Sun through the state Public Information Act.

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

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

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

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

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

Sun staff writer Annie Linskey contributed to this article.