(AP) – The Defense Department recently fired off a round of letters warning state law enforcement officials to track down every gun, helicopter and Humvee that the military had given them under a $2.6 billion surplus program, or have their access to the handouts cut off.
The problem, according to the states: At least some of them had already turned over that information.
All the same, officials at the Defense Logistics Agency have stopped issuing weapons to thousands of police departments until they’re satisfied they’ve had a full accounting of where all the giveaways have landed.
While some of the state liaisons said they don’t expect major hassles complying with the broad review, others said Friday that the letters show the Defense Department’s own troubles keeping abreast of paperwork and add another layer to an overly bureaucratic process that, on its face, is fairly straightforward.
The defense agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office provides police and sheriffs’ departments with equipment ranging from guns and helicopters to computers and air conditioners and even toilet paper. The goods are cheap or free to acquire, but much of them come with strict rules that prohibit them from being sold and dictate how they must be tracked.
Associated Press inquiries into how the program is administered in all 50 states and several U.S. territories, however, show that most of them only keep paper records, and the few states that keep electronic records only recently made the switch from paper.
“That’s the problem with the entire program is it’s paper-based when it should be automated,” said Michigan National Guard Master Sgt. David Sass.
Sass, who has been the state’s coordinator for just four months, said he already feels like he’s dealing with a broken system.
“The current program they have is inefficient and ineffective and truly not of the quality and value we need to accomplish our ultimate goal of property accountability,” Sass said.
What worries Sass the most is being asked to certify, under the penalty of perjury, what law enforcement agencies tell him about the weapons they got from the Pentagon. The letters the Defense Department sent out late last month demand “a complete (100 percent) weapons physical inventory,” in accordance with the program’s rules.
Sass said there are more law enfacement agencies in his state than there are work days in the year and it would be impossible for him to personally check the inventory of each one.
“I’m quite concerned,” he said. “Realistically, how can we be expected to verify that they have all their weapons without them being honest?”
The military decided to conduct a “one-time, clean sweep” of all state inventories instead of reviewing them piecemeal, said Kenneth MacNevin, a spokesman for the federal agency. While some gear, including guns, has been stolen or otherwise gone missing over the years, MacNevin said the reporting requirements themselves aren’t new and that the review wasn’t prompted by anything specific.
“Leadership decided to make sure we have a good, full accounting for all of this,” he said. “We’re not doing this based on any thought there’s a problem. We’re doing it because accountability is accountability.”
However, MacNevin said the AP’s ongoing inquiries and a pair of media reports were factors in the decision to send the letters. Only New Hampshire didn’t get a letter; State Police Major Russ Conte, the state’s liaison for the surplus program, said his office already had completed a full accounting.
The Arizona Republic reported last month that the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office has stockpiled millions of dollars’ worth of equipment through the program, distributing some of the gear to non-police agencies, and intended to sell other property, which would violate the program’s rules.
“The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office was audited seven months ago by the Department of Defense and were found to be in full compliance and today we are still in full compliance …,” sheriff’s spokesman Tim Gaffney told the AP and the newspaper in an email Friday. “This decision to temporarily suspend the issuance of weapons has nothing to do with us.”
A report in March by California Watch, which was founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that California police accumulated more equipment during 2011 than any other year in the program’s two-decade history. That follows the overall trend in the program, which last year doled out almost $500 million in gear, up by more than double from the year before.
Tim Hoyle, another spokesman for the Battle Creek, Mich.-based Defense Logistics Agency, said all weapons will be withheld until the accounting is completed.
In a letter dated May 24, the military notified Florida that it had failed to certify that it had finished its annual physical inventory of weapons, aircraft, Humvees and armored personnel carriers. The agency said it intended to suspend Florida from participating in the program if the certifications weren’t received by June 22.
But Mike McClure, who supervises the state coordinator for the program, said the letter was sent in error, because the state had, in fact, completed its required audit.
“We should be receiving a letter from LESO in the coming days formally rescinding their earlier memo,” the official, Mike McClure, wrote in a June 1 email to several colleagues.
Louisiana received an identical letter, but a state official said Friday it already had provided the right documents to Defense officials.
“They assured us that we should not have gotten the letter,” said Michael DiResto, a spokesman for the state Division of Administration.
Defense Logistics spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill said the agency was standing by its decision to send the letters.
“There were some states where inventories have been completed but the certification paperwork has not been received and is still required,” she said in an email Friday. “We have not rescinded any letters. The letters were tailored for each state to reflect what was needed from that state.”
The surplus program has grown exponentially in recent years, with a record $498 million worth of property distributed in fiscal year 2011. That includes $191 million in aircraft alone and more than 15,000 weapons worth nearly $4.8 million. Military officials said the program has become more popular as law enforcement agencies sustain deep budget cuts.
Conte, the New Hampshire coordinator, said some of the other equipment law enforcement agencies receive through the program is more needed at times.
“The weapons part of it is a small part compared to everything else, but it’s an important part,” he said.
Mohr reported from Jackson, Miss.; Kunzelman reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.