ACORN, the community activist organization Congress currently barred from getting federal funds, should not have been given a $450,000 grant for an affiliate to establish a fire prevention and safety program, Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General said Tuesday.
The 2007 grant, awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), went to the ACORN Institute for the pilot program, although the Inspector General's Office (OIG) said the institute claimed experience on its application it did not have and did not fully implement the program as approved.
OIG investigators also said the institute could not substantiate all its grant expenditures.
The ACORN Institute was supposed to develop a program for community groups to canvass high-risk neighborhoods and distribute and install fire safety equipment such as smoke detectors or fire extinguishers.
"The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not have sufficient oversight processes to prevent the award or to fully evaluate the use of the grant money," OIG investigators said in a report made available Tuesday to members of Congress.
The report was requested by Rep. Darrell Issa of California, ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Committee of Homeland Security and Government Affairs.
Congress cut off ACORN's federal funding last year after allegations of voter registration fraud and embezzlement. Formally known as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, it began closing its operations in March.
FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said the grant was awarded under the previous administration, adding that, "We will continue to work with the inspector general to make sure this kind of isolated incident does not happen again."
ACORN Institute's attorney, Arthur Schwartz, called the OIG report an audit of FEMA, not of the institute. He said audits requested by Mr. Issa and others began after Congress stopped all funding for ACORN "and the financial roof fell in on ACORN and the ACORN Institute."
"By the time auditors came around there was no staff left to work with them, provide documents, or walk through procedures and work records," he said. "It was sort of like auditing a dead person and asking the undertaker to provide information."
Mr. Schwartz said ACORN and the ACORN Institute filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 2. He said the institute "has no assets and it will never operate again," adding that, "Making it ineligible for future FEMA grants is somewhat meaningless."
The OIG report says the ACORN Institute wrongly claimed in its grant application that its Urban Fire Initiative had experience in fire prevention and safety, including "gutting more than 3,000 homes in New Orleans to remove debris and hazardous materials following Hurricane Katrina."
But the report said the Urban Fire Initiative did not exist prior to the grant application and neither the institute nor the initiative were involved in the Katrina work or any of the fire prevention and safety experience it claimed on the application. In addition, the report said there was no evidence to support the institute's claim it had existing partnerships with local fire departments.
The report also said FEMA had no procedure to validate claims in the grant application; the institute did not complete two of the five activities it agreed to perform; the group could not support $160,034 in expenditures; and FEMA overrode a recommendation by fire service experts who said the proposal should not be funded.
"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 Mr. Issa.
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