- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2005

The D.C. government has failed to keep track of millions of dollars in federal bioterrorism funds that it has received since 1999, prompting improper expenditures and spending delays, a recent audit said.

The District has spent or earmarked about half of the $24.4 million that it has received for bioterrorism preparedness from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since 1999, the audit said.

In addition, auditors for the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uncovered accounting lapses that they say have made it difficult for the CDC to track how the District spends bioterrorism money.

“Without accurate and complete accounting of program funds, CDC cannot measure how the program is being implemented and whether its objectives have been met,” said the audit, which was completed last month.

The audit found fault with the District’s handling of funds for thwarting a bioterrorism attack nearly three years after a series of anthrax-letter attacks in 2002 frightened city residents and killed two local postal workers.

However, the District does not appear to be at immediate risk of losing the bioterrorism funds. In a written response to the inspector general, city officials last month said the CDC has extended the use of $11.8 million in unspent funds through Aug. 30.

The report tracked bioterrorism funds awarded to the District from Aug. 31, 1999, to Aug. 30, 2004.

Auditors questioned $143,733 spent on improper or undocumented expenditures, including $38,438 in payroll payments, $8,700 for computer equipment and $66,301 for two field vehicles bought at a car dealership in Maryland. City officials identified the dealership as Sheehy Ford of Upper Marlboro.

City officials say they used some of the funds to buy two field vehicles for the D.C. Bureau of Epidemiology and Disease Control. They said the vehicle purchases were allowed by the grant at the time of the transaction, although CDC rules have since changed.

According to the report, the District charged the CDC $100,742 in salary and $18,073 in benefits for one employee, although federal officials had authorized only a $69,906 salary and $12,541 in benefits. The employee was not identified.

The inspector general recommended that the District reimburse $238,537 to the CDC for improper or undocumented expenditures and erroneously charged overtime.

In a written response to the inspector general, health officials said they generally agreed with the report’s recommendations.

In an e-mail to The Washington Times, Roderick Blair, interim senior deputy director for the D.C. Health Department’s Emergency Health and Medical Services Administration, said: “Great strides have been made” in bioterrorism preparedness since September 2004.

The Health Department has implemented a National Stockpile Exercise and Evaluation Plan and worked with local hospitals to add “surge beds” in case of an emergency, Mr. Blair said.

Dr. Jeffrey Elting, medical director for bioterrorism-response coordination for the D.C. Hospital Association, said the audit’s findings would not reflect recent improvements in bioterrorism spending under Dr. Gregg A. Pane, who took over the department in September.

“There has been a lot of progress in the last year; a lot’s transpired,” Dr. Elting said. “We did a lot of training and made plans to procure pharmaceutical stockpiles for the hospitals.

“I know the District has wanted to improve their tracking and accounting capabilities, and they’ve gone through a lot of effort to do that. The release of a lot of funds have been contingent on that happening,” Dr. Elting said.

The inspector general also found that the District did not track funds by focus areas, as required in the federal funding agreement.

The CDC awards bioterrorism funds among seven focus areas — preparedness planning, surveillance, laboratory (biological agents), laboratory (chemical agents), health alert, communications and education.

However, the District “did not track funds by focus area because its grant staff had not requested that the accounting staff make the necessary modifications in its accounting system,” the report states.

In a letter to the inspector general, city health officials said problems were resolved effective Oct. 1.

Monica R. Lamboy, chief operating officer for the Health Department, and Jon Carver, interim chief financial officer, said overtime charges relate to the city’s “lead-in-the-water crisis” and that $162,000 has since been provided by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

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