Updated Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 04:12 PM
WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department paid for an underwater robot in a Midwest city with no major rivers or lakes nearby, a hog catcher in rural Texas and a fish tank in a Texas town, according to a new congressional report highlighting what it described as wasteful spending of tax money intended for counterterrorism.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in his report that while much of the spending for the department's Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) appeared to be allowed under the program's rules, it was inappropriate in an age of budget austerity and as the federal government faces a $16 trillion national debt.
"Every dollar misspent in the name of security weakens our already precarious economic condition, indebts us to foreign nations, and shackles the future of our children and grandchildren," Coburn said.
The report focused on spending in the past few years in Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma and the National Capitol Region, which includes Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland and Virginia.
Since 2003, the Homeland Security program has ballooned from 12 major metropolitan areas to 31 jurisdictions. The study found that some cities and towns had created implausible attack scenarios to win federal grants, and had scrambled at the end of each fiscal year to buy extra, unnecessary gadgets to spend excess cash.
For instance, officials in Clovis, Calif., used the police department's $200,000 armored personnel carrier to patrol an annual Easter egg hunt, and Peoria, Ariz., spent $90,000 to install cameras and car-bomb barriers at the spring-training field for the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.
Among other projects Coburn found questionable:
• $21 for a fish tank in Seguin, Texas, a small town outside of San Antonio.
• $98,000 for an underwater robot in Columbus, Ohio, where there are no major rivers and few lakes nearby.
• $24,000 for a "latrine on wheels" in Fort Worth, Texas.
• An armored vehicle bought with a $285,933 grant in Keene, N.H., a town that is home to an annual pumpkin festival that draws up to 70,000 people.
• $250,000 for security upgrades, including $9,000 in signage, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The program stems from the 2001 terrorist attacks when the federal government pledged to help equip local governments to prevent future attacks and respond if they occurred.
The Homeland Security Department has pumped billions to states in the past decade under the program that puts states in control of how the money is spent. The security program is the department's most popular grant, and guidance for how money can be spent has evolved.
In the past decade there have been other examples of questionable homeland-security grants, including infamous snow-cone machines bought by Michigan officials last year.
The department has no way of tracking how the money is spent and has not produced adequate measures to gauge what states and communities need, Coburn said.
Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said the department "fundamentally disagrees with the report's position on the value of homeland-security grants and the importance of investments in our first responders on the front lines and the development of critical capabilities at the local level."
Chandler said the department's grant programs are evolving and changes proposed by the Obama administration reflect "a more targeted approach" to how federal money will be spent in the future.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., departing chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said that while Coburn's report "makes some good points," the program's benefits outweigh its flaws.
"The grants, for example, have helped improve first-responder communications between different jurisdictions and levels of government, a lesson learned from the 9/11 attacks, when scores of New York City firefighters died because of poor communications," said Lieberman.
The department has awarded $35 billion in grants, including those for counterterrorism, to cities and states since it was created in November 2002. It awarded $490 million for counterterrorism grants in 2012, down from a peak of $832 million in 2010.
"At the end of the day we will have to buckle down and be more smart and efficient," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
After a decade without a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the appetite for big counterterrorism initiatives has diminished, said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a domestic-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
"The threat has evolved and we don't have the resources to protect all Americans from all threats all the time," Nelson said. "Even if we wanted to do it, we can't afford it."
Congress regularly complains about the lack of accountability of the grant programs, but lawmakers are happy to have the federal dollars spent in their districts. And almost from the beginning the program has operated with political considerations.
In 2004, then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge told a congressional panel asking about allotments to various cities that he was looking for a formula that gets "218 votes in the House or 51 votes in the Senate, in order to get it done."
Coburn shouldered some of the blame for the program's failings.
"Any blame for problems in the UASI program ... also falls on Congress, which is often more preoccupied with the amount of money sent to its cities than with how the money is spent," he said.
Associated Press writer Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report. Material from the Tribune Washington bureau is included in this report.
Sen. Tom Coburn's report criticized spending.
Sen. Joe Lieberman said benefits outweigh flaws.