Nothing in Life Is Free: Misuse of Federal Grant Money

by | January 18, 2023

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here! In this article I will continue our discussion regarding Family Nine of the “10 Families of Risk”—Financial and Reputational Risks. But first, I want to thank you for the feedback you have given me regarding previous articles in this series. I frequently receive comments such as, “It is as if you work in my department—we had almost the exact same thing happen here” and “Who in my department is feeding you this information?”

No one tells me what to write or says, “You need to talk about this.” These writings flow from all the stuff I have learned over the last 50 years. But I will remind you of one of my three basic rules of risks management: There are no new ways to get in trouble. The errors you are going to make can be predicted from the errors already made. This is true in every industry, including our noble profession of public safety.

But enough of that—let’s get to our focus in this writing—the risks involved in grant money.

It’s obvious many public safety agencies are not following the rules, thus creating substantial risk for their agencies and their personnel.

What a great deal this is! You peruse the public safety and government websites and you learn there is grant money available for a DUI program or a new apparatus or a training program or a domestic violence initiative. You fill out the requisite forms to get this grant money and your request gets approved and you start to spend the money.

This is just wonderful—“free” money!

Nothing in life is free. While this is not one of my rules, I have heard it from my parents, my teachers, my mentors and countless others over the decades. And it is true, particularly with respect to grant monies. There are rules, requirements, mandates, stipulations, conditions, demands, obligations, pre-conditions, provisions, specifications and terms (yes, I gave Roget a workout for this) involving the use of grant money and if you do not follow these rules, there are significant consequences.

And yet it’s obvious many public safety agencies are not following the rules, thus creating substantial risk for their agencies and their personnel. Here a just a few of the scores of reports available online re: misuse of federal grant money:

  • Michigan: The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Inspector General investigated after two employees of a county sheriff’s office may have submitted or attempted to submit overtime requests but didn’t work as scheduled. The grant funding is being used to pay employee overtime on drug cases and investigations.
  • California: A man hired by several fire chiefs associations to administer grant money for wildland fire protection pleaded guilty to misappropriating more than $1.2 million. He submitted false requests to FEMS over five years.
  • Utah: Federal authorities filed suit against Utah and Utah officials for fraudulently using millions of dollars of federal grant money through the Justice Assistance Grant Program, the American Recovery Reinvestment Act Program and the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Continuation Program. The suit alleges Utah officials falsely claimed grant money to create criminal justice jobs but instead used the grant to replace state funds for already existing jobs. As the U.S. Attorney explained, this amounted to supplanting rather than supplementing agency budgets in contravention of the grant requirements and certifications.
  • Tennessee: A police chief of a municipal department was indicted by a federal grand jury following charges he used overtime grants designated for alcohol enforcement programs to supplement his pay when in fact he had not been working DUI enforcement. The chief allegedly prepared and submitted false timesheets for overtime hours, resulting in payments totaling more than $25,000. The stolen funds were derived from federal grants provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety Office.
  • New Mexico: A federal audit of the New Mexico Department of Transportation found about $500,000 in taxpayer funds was misused by five law enforcement agencies. The money was provided as part of a grant program that covers the costs of training officers to conduct field sobriety tests and set up sobriety checkpoints. The agencies involved used the grant funds for other types of training.

I am past my word count for this article, but there are dozens of similar cases from around the nation about misuse of federal grant money. In the next article, I will provide some control measures (policies and procedures) you need to have in place to prevent these problems from occurring.

Timely TakeawayTimely Takeaway—Take a look at this story from the car world. I would have loved to be involved in this “supercar” investigation. It is very troubling to me that we have people in our profession participate in similar behaviors—not taking money from rich people, but rather misusing taxpayer resources. We must have sufficient control measures in place to prevent this from happening.

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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