How ACORN got half a million in taxpayer dollars from DHS for ‘fire prevention’

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
Font Size:

Everybody knows about ACORN, the dead, but not really dead activist group charged with all sorts of improprieties and illegalities, the most significant of which is voter fraud, including registering Mickey Mouse to vote.

But how did ACORN, a “grassroots reform” group, get grant money reserved mostly for local fire departments to do “fire prevention” work?

This is a story of how a bureaucratic office can override the recommendations of its own experts and award taxpayer dollars to an organization with no experience or credentials, resulting in sheer, utter waste.

The tale begins in 2007, when the ACORN Institute, an affiliate of ACORN, applied for a $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the Department of Homeland Security.

To justify asking for a cool million to work on fire prevention, something it had no experience in, the ACORN Institute created a new organization called the “Urban Fire Initiative.”

ACORN claimed the Urban Fire Initiative had partnered with local fire departments in North Carolina and California and had removed debris, and therefore fire hazards, from thousands of homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

But according to a report obtained by The Daily Caller from the DHS Office of Inspector General, none of that was true.

“The Urban Fire Initiative did not exist prior to the grant application, but was created specifically for” applying for taxpayer dollars, the report says, adding that neither ACORN nor the Urban Fire Initiative was involved in any of the fire prevention efforts it listed as its experience in that field.

Indeed, there is no evidence that ACORN had one bit of experience in fire prevention prior to creating a makeshift “initiative” to ask for $1 million dollars from the government.

“No other evidence was available to show that ACORN Institute had been involved in any fire prevention and safety activities or had experience in this area,” the inspector general says.

“It is really unthinkable that anyone would use the guise of public safety and helping victims of a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina as a calculating way to inappropriately obtain taxpayer dollars,” said top GOP oversight official Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, in a written statement.

Alas, FEMA did not verify any of the information in the application, instead relying on ACORN’s “self-certification” the information was true.

“FEMA based the eligibility of its applicants solely on unverified claims they made in their grant applications,” the inspector general’s report says.

However, there was one layer of accountability. Every application was checked by a technical evaluation panel comprised of “fire service experts” who check to see whether the project plan makes sense.

In the case of ACORN’s request for $1 million dollars for an activity it had no experience in, these experts raised red flags about the project.

The panel issued concerns that the program “appears to rely on grant funding for sustainability” and that the “costs for personnel and equipment are high compared to only a small portion for safety equipment.”

Further, the experts asked, “should non-fire personnel conduct safety assessments?” That would seem odd!

The experts scored each grant application on its merits. There were five other “community organizations” which submitted plans similar to ACORN’s and received higher scores. Only one of those five received any taxpayer dollars, an award of $384,000.

But deep within the bowels of FEMA, someone made a decision that tax money should go to the ACORN Institute’s Urban Fire Initiative. FEMA cut the amount from the $1 million ask to $450,854, approved the grant, and the money went on its merry way.

The next year, ACORN’s grant came under review, and again, the technical evaluation panel raised red flags.

This time, the inspector general notes, the panel “was concerned with the lack of information on the ACORN Institute’s…performance and outcomes.”

The panel recommended reducing the grant amount and demanding further accountability and information from ACORN.

FEMA again ignored the concerns.

“FEMA has no guidelines or policies that require staff to document the basis of decisions to award grants that are contrary to Technical Evaluation Panel recommendations, or how the panel’s concerns are to be addressed,” the inspector general notes.

Now, in 2010, the inspector general’s office has investigated whatever happened to the half a million in taxpayer dollars which funded ACORN’s fire prevention efforts.

ACORN’s plan was to recruit volunteers who would be trained by local fire departments who would then audit homes on fire safety.

As it turned out, no fire departments were involved. Instead, ACORN hired a “consulting firm” to do some training and then did a few home audits by themselves.

“The only evidence that some sort of training did occur were the training sessions for ACORN Institute’s Urban Fire Initiative staff, conducted by a consulting firm ACORN Institute hired to work on this project,” the inspector general says.

“Also, it was the Urban Fire Initiative staff that performed the in-home audits, which was a deviation from the plan to include the local fire departments in these inspections. FEMA did not approve these changes,” the inspector general says.

$450,854 may be puny in terms of the federal deficit, but it’s still a significant chunk of change. What happened to it? That’s hard to say. “ACORN Institute does not have documentation to support how it spent $160,797 of the grant funds,” the inspector general says.

$160,797, or 36% of the total grant money, just vanished.

The DHS Office of Inspector General report is full of eager recommendations to FEMA to help stopping this kind of thing from happening again.

Those include a fuller review of where the $160,797 went and deciding whether or not to bar the ACORN Institute from receiving any future grants.

Additionally, the inspector general says, FEMA should “implement procedures to confirm the accuracy of significant assertions used as the basis for determining grant applicants’ eligibility” and require FEMA staff to explain their decision when they  override experts to approve a grant anyway.