EDITORS’ NOTE: THIS STORY HAS BEEN CORRECTED.
Nearly $1 million in Homeland Security funding typically earmarked for fire departments has been awarded to ACORN before Congress signaled that it intended to cut off federal funding to the embattled group.
The grant to ACORN’s Louisiana office became public in September before the House and Senate voted to cut off ACORN funding after employees were caught on video advising a fake prostitute and pimp on scams.
It was one of only three such grants issued to the state and made up almost 80 percent of the firefighting money earmarked for Louisiana, prompting one of the U.S. senators from the state to demand that the funds be taken back.
“I request that you rescind this grant based on a history of abuse of federal dollars by ACORN and their clear lack of expertise in this area,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican.
When asked how the money would be spent, ACORN spokesman Brian Kettenring issued a statement criticizing the senator, who confessed in the past to having used an escort service.
“Senator Vitter knows a lot more about prostitution rings than anyone here does, so we’ll defer to him on any matters pertaining to the videos attacking ACORN,” the statement read. It did not explain how the group plans to spend the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant.
Mr. Vitter, who was routinely notified of the grant before it became public, sent his letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Sept. 22, saying the money should be given “to a more deserving group of first responders.”
One such group might have been the St. Tammany Parish Fire District No. 3, which applied for a $120,000 grant to purchase smoke alarms for low-income families after a January fire killed four children in a home that had no working detectors.
“We wanted to buy smoke detectors to spread to homes all over the community to prevent that from happening again,” Chief Charles Flynn said in an interview Tuesday.
“I have no problem with not getting a grant, I’ve lost grants before,” said Chief Flynn, one of the fire officials who complained to Mr. Vitter in a letter.
“My issue is ACORN in New Orleans. Their mission statement says nothing about fire safety or fire prevention. It bothered me that ACORN got $1 million and there are so many smaller and bigger departments that have a need for that money.”
The Monroe Fire Department was the only squad in Louisiana to receive a grant and will be awarded $192,000. The Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office will receive $62,000.
ACORN received $997,402, slightly less than the maximum allowable grant of $1 million. A total of $35 million was available for the grants project to fire districts across the country this year.
“Several Louisiana fire departments have voiced their serious concerns to me over the award of these funds to ACORN,” Mr. Vitter said in the letter.
“We can all understand that there are never enough funds to allocate for all the deserving requests of fire departments, and each year there are many more requests than funds available,” he wrote. “But when so many fire departments throughout the nation are struggling for funding for important and lifesaving projects, how is it that a non-fire department with no clear expertise in fire safety and prevention is given such a large award for fire safety?”
“These firefighters that put their lives on the line for the safety of their communities deserve a full explanation of this award,” Mr. Vitter said.
The money, formally awarded for fiscal year 2008, was given to the ACORN Institute, which bills itself as a research and training facility “to combat the poverty, discrimination and community deterioration that keeps low-income people from taking advantage of their rights and opportunities.”
This is the second year ACORN has been awarded the fire prevention and safety grant. In the 2007 fiscal year, ACORN received $450,484 out of Louisiana’s $859,596 share.
Matthew Chandler, Homeland Security spokesman, said Ms. Napolitano will respond directly to Mr. Vitter.
“The department does not respond to correspondence through the media,” Mr. Chandler said.
Mr. Vitter’s office said the senator had not received a response as of Tuesday afternoon.
FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said no funds had been distributed.
FEMA’s Web site says that in addition to fire departments, the grants are sometimes awarded to community organizations that are “recognized for their experience and expertise in fire prevention and safety programs and activities.”
Out of 200 fire-prevention and research grants announced last week to fire organizations, governments and universities primarily, a half-dozen went to community groups that included ACORN; Safe Kids of Clark County, Nevada; Geneva County Children’s Non-Profit Council of Alabama; and the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.
The money can be used for purchasing smoke detectors, media campaigns, arson-prevention programs, and wildfire prevention.
Republicans had long been critical of ACORN, which also is under investigation in several states on voter-fraud and other corruption charges. But Democrats have begun abandoning the group since the series of sting videos were released on Andrew Breitbart’s investigative Web site biggovernment.com starting in early September.
The Senate voted Sept. 14 to cut off funding for ACORN in response to the release; the House followed suit three days later. The two bills will have to be combined before a final vote takes place.
However, the Internal Revenue Service says it will eject ACORN from the agency’s volunteer tax assistance program, and the Census Bureau has excluded the group from helping with the 2010 census.
The FEMA grant was revealed as ACORN Chief Executive Officer Bertha Lewis and Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sparred over how much money was embezzled from the group by a top official nearly a decade ago.
ACORN says less than $1 million was stolen, but the attorney general claims the figure is as high as $5 million.
“This is speculation, completely false and not based on any documentation or any audit or anything other than two disgruntled former board members,” Ms. Lewis said Tuesday at a National Press Club news conference during which she accused the group’s critics of racism.
Joseph Curl contributed to this report.