Thursday, August 28, 2014

Misuse of Funds, Lies and Videos While The Overseers Circle the Wagons

WTSP Channel 10's Mike Deeson has his latest report on the misuse of DHS federal funds by PSTA:
There are calls for resignations for some top officials in charge of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) after 10 Investigates stories about the misuse of federal funds.
PSTA is now getting called out for not only misusing the funds, but also lashing out at critics who called them out.
PSTA was supposed to use the federal money to help protect bus riders from terrorists instead of promoting the transit tax, Greenlight Pinellas. The agency was forced to return $354,000 and could face federal criminal and civil charges.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is also chair of the PSTA board, decided to mock those who attended the PSTA board meeting requesting those responsible for the misuse of funds resign. According to Deeson's report, Welch responded:
"So my answer to you is consistent, not only -- no, will I not resign, but heck no I will not resign."
Today we have so many government scandals it is hard to keep count of them all. But there is one thing consistent with all of them - no one is being held accountable. We are seeing the same result here with this local scandal - no accountability. That is why there is so much distrust of government agencies and elected officials today.

The Tampa Bay Times reported 
Under fire from critics energized by a botched federal grant, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board of directors voiced unanimous support Wednesday for its chairman and CEO. 
The board of elected officials and two citizens also approved some safeguards that members hope will ward off more errors in the critical last two months before the Nov. 4 vote on the Greenlight Pinellas referendum. (emphasis mine)
PSTA was forced to hastily return the DHS funds, thinking that would take care of the situation and the issue would simply go away. It did not and the PSTA board circled their wagons to protect Miller as the Times reported:
"Nobody works harder for transportation and the PSTA. Nobody," said board member and St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton. "This gentleman goes above and beyond the call of duty, and that's what's expected, and I think taxpayers ought to be happy that their money is being spent on an individual that does just that."
"We don't want to overemphasize a small thing that happened," board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said before making a motion to support Miller and Welch and their recommendations.
Is PSTA playing by the rules? 
According to this report by Channel 10's Mike Deeson, DHS sent a 5 page scathing letter to PSTA with a cease and desist order to stop using the DHS funds. DHS also states they can pursue civil or criminal remedies even if the funds are returned. 

Why do the Times and PSTA keep calling this issue that puts PSTA in the position for potential civil or criminal liability an "error"? Why would Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala think it's a "small thing". A warning by DHS to PSTA they may face criminal charges is a "small thing" compared to what? 

Apparently, what PSTA stated on their DHS application for what they planned to use the DHS funds for does not match how they actually used the money. That is called FRAUD, and it is especially specious when the taxpayer funds fraudulently being spent is to promote a tax increase referendum that will benefit PSTA. 

From a Public Records Request submitted, I received a copy of the RFP issued in 2011 for the Emergency Awareness and Response Strategy Program aka EARS. The RFP's Scope of Services includes a Transit Watch Program, a program to ENHANCE transit security and coordinate with emergency personnel and first responders:
PSTA's RFP for use of DHS funds
Remember the June 25 PSTA Board meeting?  PSTA CEO Brad Miller stated the DHS federal funds were used in two phases.  Phase 1 included developing a bilingual public awareness program, outreach and training to emergency and first responder personnel and hosting public awareness events.
PSTA DHS Funds Phase 1
At approximately 7:30 in the video, Miller states that Phase 1 produced a brochure. What happened to the rest of the task items in Phase 1?  Did they ever get completed?

At approximately 8:00 in the video, Miller states that the ads and bus wraps were funded by a Phase 2 of the DHS funds.  Miller then states he circled on a document what "Homeland Security had approved": "a mass media campaign to further promote public awareness of security issues related to public transportation". 
PSTA DHS funds Phase 2
We now know that DHS never approved the videos and bus wraps.  

The videos apparently have been taken down by PSTA and are no longer available online but some of the ads can still be found where Channel 10's Mike Deeson first reported on the issue here. These ads were nothing more than PSTA "feel good" advertisements for people to ride the bus and then encouraging them to go to their Greenlight Pinellas website "to learn more".  Greenlight Pinellas doesn't even exist. It's a proposal that's part of the sales tax referendum.  It defies logic to connect the dots between a program to promote public awareness of security issues and a plan that does not even exist.  

A company called Witt and Associates, an emergency preparedness, crisis management and disaster response consulting firm, was the only vendor to respond to the RFP and they were awarded the contract. Was the RFP specifically written for Witt? A copy of the contract was received via a Public Records Request.  

PSTA awards DHS funding contract to Witt and Associates
There's controversy surrounding that company too. James Lee Witt, founder of Witt and Associates, was a former FEMA director appointed by President Clinton. He founded his company after leaving his FEMA post. According to this NBC report in 2007 there were accusations that his company profited on Katrina. PSTA and controversy seem to go hand and hand. 

FEMA is the DHS agency that actually awards the transit security grants to transit agencies. Could there still be some coziness between Witt and FEMA? Certainly a professional emergency preparedness consulting firm such as Witt and Associates would know the allowable uses of DHS funds under the transit security grant program. Did Witt and Associates knowingly aid and abet in the misuse of these funds? 

Only in government does an agency's incompetence, dereliction of duty or willful fraudulence bring unanimous support for them by a board appointed to oversee them. Only in government is misuse of taxpayer funds considered an "error" and a "small thing". It is absurd. 

The continued arrogance of the PSTA Board, which consists of ALL elected officials and two citizens, on this issue is breathtaking. Perhaps a housecleaning of the entire PSTA board is needed and they all need to step down. 

Instead of trying to sweep potential criminal activity away, the PSTA board should be demanding a full independent audit of all grant money received and spent since Brad Miller has been CEO at PSTA. According to Miller, PSTA has received at least $2.5 million from DHS. Where did it all go? Where has all of PSTA's money gone?

In addition, the PSTA board should demand a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) audit be done for 2011-2012. Was PSTA's financial position misrepresented when PSTA was pursuing the 30% property tax increase in 2011? PSTA had threatened a huge deficit and cuts to bus service if they didn't get a property tax increase. When PSTA got the 30% property tax increase October 2011, did PSTA's deficit of over $5 million suddenly swing $13 million to become a $7 million surplus within months of receiving the increased tax revenue? 

Some questions need answers. How did that swing happen? Did PSTA use the 30% property tax increase to wrangle a million dollars from taxpayers to pay for their Greenlight Pinellas lobbying, marketing and advocacy campaign? What else is PSTA hiding?

Quick recap:  

  • Brad Miller was hired as CEO of PSTA in July 2011
  • EARS RFP issued in August 2011 
  • PSTA votes for property tax increase in September 2011 (beginning October 2011) 
  • PSTA receives DHS grant awarded by FEMA at end of 2011
  • Witt and Associates, founded by a former FEMA Director, is the only vendor who responds to RFP and PSTA awards contract for use of the DHS/FEMA transit security grant funds to Witt and Associates in January 2012
  • PSTA begins receiving the 30% property tax increase for 2012 and they quickly swing from a deficit to a surplus
  • PSTA uses $400K of taxpayer dollars in 2013 to hire PR firm Tucker Hall and launch their Greenlight Pinellas campaign
  • PSTA wraps their buses with Greenlight Pinellas ads and runs their "feel good" videos created by Witt and Associates using DHS federal grant funds 
  • PSTA states in 2014 they will use at least another $400K of taxpayer dollars to continue their Greenlight Pinellas marketing campaign
  • PSTA is caught misusing the DHS transit security grant funds, at first denies the misuse and then several weeks ago hastily refunds $350K back to DHS/FEMA
  • DHS/FEMA sends PSTA a scathing cease and desist letter August 14 stating criminal and civil action can be pursued even when funds are returned
  • Concerned citizens call for the resignation of Brad Miller

The only reason PSTA (mis)used the DHS/FEMA transit security grant funds for Greenlight advertising is because they thought they could get away with it. But they got caught.

PSTA has no ethics and apparently the PSTA board doesn't either.  

Audit PSTA NOW, clean house and get rid of the perpetrators.

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding analysis. THANKS! David McKalip at (The original source of this investigation!)