State and federal officials are continuing a probe of what happened with a $30 million grant program intended to protect Mississippi coastal homes against hurricanes. MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports.
The Office of the Inspector General recommended in a preliminary report that FEMA hold off on payments to the state’s Coastal Retrofit program, which began in 2012. Tom Salmon is assistant Inspector General for emergency management oversight. Among the concerns is the state let one employee have complete authority over the program, "which influenced the approval of completion of work to contractors," he says. "And also the state contends it spent $31.5 million in state funds to complete the work, on only 945 of the estimated 2,000 homes."
Further, OIG auditors have only been able to verify less than $1 million dollars of the $30 million the state say its paid to contractors.
Lee Smithson, who became director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency in February, says all those involved with the program have dbeen fired and he's turned over the investigation to the Inspector General and the state Attorney General’s office. Horne CPA is also conducting an analysis.
Smithson believes most of the spending will be approved by FEMA and ultimately recovered by the state.
"The thing that upsets me more than anything else about Coastal Retrofit is that the program was designed to help out 2,000 households in Mississippi to reduce their risk, and less than a thousand were done," he says. "At the end of the day, I believe that all of the investigating agencies will get to the bottom of where the money went, and the state and the federal government will more than likely recoup all of that money. So at the end of the day, the biggest travesty with the program is the fact that over a thousand Mississippi families do not have their homes retrofit for wind damage that should have.
"It's a trust issue, and I think that there were people in the previous administration who violated the trust of the people of Mississippi because they were entrusted to do what was right, and they didn't do it," he says.
Smithson says he is getting updates from Horne every other week on the audit but it may be months before it's fully resolved.
The inspector general’s office plans to continue its audit in September.