Unnatural disaster in relief office disaster in relief office

Governor, enforcement agencies must demand accountability

August 11, 2013 

Amelia Bedelia, the title character in a series of children's books, often gets things wrong, causing near-hopeless confusion. In the end, though, she bakes a delicious dessert, using her trademark, if imprecise, "a little of this and a pinch of that," and everyone's happy.

Unlikely as it seems, Amelia Bedelia herself could have written the operating manuals of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, judging from what a special examination by the state auditor's office revealed.

Confusion reigns throughout and it seems to have been sorted out with "a little of this and a pinch of that." Numbers don't match up so invoices are altered; money from multiple federal and state sources, with different allowable expenses, is intermingled so it's almost impossible to sort out if it's been spent according to guidelines.

What's not so benign is the atmosphere in the office. Employees report, and auditors observed, an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. The report notes "evidence obtained during the examination included corroborated first-hand accounts of threats of retaliation" against employees who cooperated with auditors.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who appointed John W. Heltzel to run the agency in 2008, announced Heltzel's resignation Thursday, two days after the audit was made public and about two weeks after the governor's office first saw the report.

The auditor, who lacks enforcement powers, sent the damning report on to the Kentucky attorney general's office, the executive branch ethics commission and the inspector general's office at the federal Department of Homeland Security.

There are very serious charges in this report that deserve their full attention, including threatening potential whistle blowers, impeding an investigation, falsifying invoices and improperly spending public funds.

Also troubling is why no one took action, despite red flags in earlier audits. This question goes to the Department of Military Affairs which oversees Emergency Management. There were "either material weaknesses or significant deficiencies" in the agency's financial management pointed out in previous years. Interestingly, Heltzel was on the committee that oversaw Military Affairs' internal auditor, the person who would logically look into deficiencies and recommend changes. Beshear should demand answers from the leaders of Military Affairs.

What can't happen is that a couple of people resign to enjoy their generous pensions while all these pesky concerns are ignored.

First, by its very nature, Emergency Management spends a lot of money on short notice under conditions of extreme stress, $64 million in fiscal year 2012, most of it federal money, including FEMA grants made to respond to disasters. If the agency can't account properly for money spent on a conference planned months (and at great expense) in advance, how can the public have any confidence the millions handed out on an emergency basis are spent appropriately?

Second, natural disasters are occurring more frequently and the hue and cry to severely reduce or eliminate federal funds to respond to them is growing. Our own Sen. Rand Paul recently criticized the state of New Jersey for seeking federal disaster relief in the wake of the devastating Superstorm Sandy, and voted against the relief package earlier this year. Our social pact to take care of each other, already under fire, is further diminished by the actions reported here.

It will take more than a little of this and a pinch of that to clean up this unnatural disaster and assure those who caused it are held to account.

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