The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously called for an audit of how the health department has spent federal grants intended to prepare for bioterrorism, after two supervisors worried aloud that possible misspending could give the county a black eye.
The board’s action came a day after The Times reported that the county Department of Health Services spent at least $2 million in federal grant funds for items that were of questionable relevance to terrorism preparedness.
These expenses included $57,045 to hire extras from Central Casting to participate in a 2004 smallpox vaccination drill, along with gift bags to thank the paid actors and volunteers.
The county also spent $128,000 on promotional items such as flashlights and letter openers, and $170,000 to train health department staff on how to put together videos to be viewed online.
Two videos have been produced, neither of which focuses on bioterrorism.
The supervisors’ motion called for the county auditor-controller to review the spending and report back within 30 days and for the chief administrative officer to draft guidelines for spending grants.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county’s director of public health, said he welcomed the audit. Coincidentally, Fielding said, he recently requested an audit to ensure that his agency was following evolving federal guidelines.
“Overall, I think we’ve invested the money well and we’ve significantly increased our preparedness and look forward to working with the auditor-controller to see if there are any items that they have concerns about,” Fielding said in an interview.
At their Tuesday meeting, supervisors were skeptical.
“It is a violation of ethics, a violation of public trust, that we use funds for other purposes than that which it’s intended,” said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who sponsored the motion.
It’s better to give funds back to the federal government, he said, “than to spend them for frivolous items, be it flashlights that glow in the dark or Frisbees or hiring people to stand in line” for drills.
Supervisor Don Knabe, who co-sponsored the motion, voiced similar concerns.
“We just need to make sure that we’re doing it the right way,” he said. “There may be a good explanation for all this, but we need to clear the air so that in the eyes of the federal government, as we apply for other funds, they’re not going back to this particular item to give us a black eye.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doled out more than $2.7 billion between 2002 and 2004 to prepare states, counties and cities in the event of a bioterrorist attack. L.A. County received $83 million, of which $14 million has gone unspent.
For the current grant year beginning last summer, the county was given an additional $27.9 million.
Most of the federal grant money has been used to hire and train staff to respond to emergencies, which generally is the purpose of such funds.
CDC spokesman Von Roebuck said his agency plans to conduct a site visit soon of the county’s bioterrorism program, but not in response to issues raised in The Times. For now, the CDC does not plan any additional measures, Roebuck said.