Charlotte, Tampa mishandled political-convention grants, IG says

05/14/2014 4:32 PM

05/14/2014 4:49 PM

The city of Charlotte, N.C., misused more than $132,000 in federal money that city officials received to beef up security during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, according to a new federal investigation.

The city has agreed to pay back more than half that, saying $79,000 was wrongfully spent because of “clerical issues.” But city officials say the remaining funds were not misused, and they plan to contest attempts to recover the money.

In a 27-page report, the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general found that federal dollars had been used to give a deputy police chief a $12,200 lump payment and a retired police captain nearly $8,000 in retirement payments. The grant money also was used to pay more than $16,000 in salaries and overtime for 39 Charlotte Fire Department employees.

More than $53,000 was improperly used to pay for two SUVs that were supposed to be modified with running boards and grab bars so officers could be transported to convention events, according to the report. The modifications were never made, however, so the vehicles could have been rented for less money, the inspector general estimated.

“If Congress chooses to continue providing funds for presidential nominating convention security, future grant recipients need to place a greater emphasis on pursuing low cost alternatives to procuring grant-funded property whenever those options are available,” the report said.

The findings are part of a federal review of $100 million in security grants that the cities of Charlotte and Tampa, Fla., received for the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. The inspector general found $25,192 in questionable costs by the city of Tampa, including the mayor’s use of a grant-funded SUV for non-security purposes.

The conclusions may bolster criticism that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for conventions that have evolved into largely scripted commercials for each political party. Host cites have also been accused of using the money to stock up on equipment and resources that are unnecessary for the events.

The city of Charlotte admitted it shouldn’t have used the money to offset the personnel costs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Maj. Mike Adams, one of the department’s chief planners for the convention, called it a clerical error that occurred as officials processed thousands of lines of data the department used to determine which work was reimbursed by the federal government. He said the amount represented a fraction of the money the city received.

In April, President Barack Obama signed a law that ended $18.2 million in public funding each for the Democratic and Republican conventions. But that money is separate from the $100 million that Charlotte and Tampa received to defray security costs.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department used the money to bring in thousands of officers from outside departments to help with security. Eighty-six vehicles were purchased, including 40 motorcycles, 10 pickups, seven vans and two sport utility vehicles, the ones that were supposed to be modified.

Adams argued that the department did not misuse money related to the SUVs. It had originally planned to outfit two Chevrolet Tahoes with handles and running boards, which would allow officers to ride along the outside to get where they were needed quickly. But the department decided the vehicles’ roofs weren’t strong enough and abandoned that plan, Adams said. The Tahoes were still used to transport officers.

“We think the (federal Bureau of Justice Assistance) is going to be in agreement with us,” Adams said, and that the department wouldn’t have to repay that money.

The inspector general countered that the city could have rented similar vehicles.

“It is not clear to us why the city did not inquire into the feasibility of these proposed modifications before purchasing the two vehicles,” the IG said.

Charlotte Observer Staff Writer Cleve Wootson contributed to this article from Charlotte.

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