- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Nearly a quarter of the federal disaster planning money spent by a North Dakota nonprofit was used for “unallowable or questionable” items, including alcohol, a state official said.

The North Dakota EMS Association, which represents about 1,800 ambulance and emergency workers, also spent money it shouldn’t have on lobbying, cell phones, meals and some salaries and bonuses, an internal association audit and other records obtained by The Associated Press show.

Tim Wiedrich, chief of the North Dakota Health Department’s emergency preparedness and response section, said Wednesday that the “unallowable or questionable” items made up nearly $200,000 of the roughly $810,000 the Bismarck-based group received between 2004 and last year to help produce a plan to fight bioterrorism and other mass disasters.

Mark Weber, the association’s president, said the group will repay the money, but he defended its motives.

“I think we felt we spent money for the right reasons and that we were spending that money appropriately,” Weber said. “We have nothing to hide. Every dime we spent was to promote EMS.”

Some grant money was used for dinner and drinks, Weber said.

“We would go out to supper and have a beer or two,” Weber said. “These are things people do when they’re getting something done. But when you look back, we shouldn’t have done it.”

How the group will pay the money back is unclear. It receives less than $200,000 annually from its other funding sources, including membership, testing and conferences.

Wiedrich said an investigation is ongoing, and the grant has expired. Billings of about $38,500 from the group have been denied, and state officials are working with the federal agency and the EMS Association to figure out exactly how much will have to be repaid, he said.

Bismarck police have asked to review the case, Wiedrich said. He did not know if criminal charges would be filed. Police Lt. Randy Ziegler said information was forwarded to the FBI.

“Since it was a federal grant, it really wasn’t our jurisdiction,” Ziegler said.

Weber said the group ordered its own audit last year, after questions surfaced from new staff members about spending.

The grant allowed for the bulk of the executive director’s salary to be paid from the federal funds, but Wiedrich said documentation is lacking to support the salary charged to the grant. Records show $217,192 from the grant was given to the group’s executive director, which included salary, health insurance, and a bonus.

Weber said Dean Lampe, the group’s former executive director, resigned in 2007. The group hired two executive directors since then but “one quit and one was let go,” Weber said. He would not elaborate.

The group is without an executive director now, he said.

Wiedrich said despite the misspending from the group, the state now has a sufficient plan in place to deal with mass disasters.

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