Inspector: Grants Shortchange Port Security

The Homeland Security Department (search) has allowed federal grants for improving security at America's ports to be spent on low priority problems rather than the most serious vulnerabilities, the agency's outgoing watchdog says.

In a draft report to be released next month, Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin says port security (search) spending should be governed by the most pressing priorities rather than local politics.

Blaming inadequate staffing and poor coordination, Ervin said the department's port security grant program needs better oversight to make sure projects that get money meet security goals.

"The DHS does not have a strong grant evaluation process in place by which to address post-award administration issues, including measuring progress in accomplishing DHS' grant objectives," Ervin said in a recent summary of the report.

The summary was contained in another report from Ervin's office, "Major Management Challenges Facing the Department of Homeland Security," which was posted on the DHS web site.

The grant program has been criticized in the past for being too cumbersome and for awarding money to projects of questionable use. To make his point, Ervin cited the report of the Sept. 11 Commission (search), which said homeland security spending should not be used as a "pork barrel" for politicians to send money to their home districts.

The report is one of the last submitted by Ervin, who earned a reputation as a blunt critic of the department before leaving the job earlier this month. Ervin won a recess appointment to the position in December 2003, but the Senate failed to confirm him and the White House appeared unlikely to nominate him again.

DHS spokesman Brian Roehrkasse declined to comment until the full report is completed, but said the department had streamlined its grant processes earlier this year.

"We have made progress in integrating all of the previous disparate grant programs from the agencies that created DHS into one office in the department that is ensuring all grant dollars are maximized and spent according a strategy outlining the greatest needs," Roehrkasse said.

DHS manages several grant programs, totaling about $10 billion last year, that provide money for disaster preparedness, prevention, response and recovery. The agency has distributed about $560 million for port security over the past few years.

Despite consolidation of the grant program offices, Ervin said "much work remains to be done" and noted that department officials planned to increase staff to allow for more site visits and improved oversight of grant-funded projects.

Ervin was unavailable Monday to comment on the report. Robert Ashbaugh, spokesman for acting Inspector General Richard L. Skinner, said the report has been circulated to officials in the agency for comments.

"They will have an opportunity to provide a response and state whether they agree to take corrective action," Ashbaugh said.

Ervin had issued several reports critical of department programs. A report in October criticized the Transportation Security Administration for an employee awards ceremony that cost nearly $500,000. Another report filed that same month said TSA screeners were not properly trained to handle deadly weapons and were not tested on passengers' rights.