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Failed security program wasted $45 million

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More than $45 million of taxpayers’ money bought Cook County residents missing and unused equipment for police who weren't even trained to use the gear.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD —More than $45 million of taxpayers’ money bought Cook County residents missing and unused equipment for police who weren't even trained to use the gear. 

A report from the state Inspector General's office outlined the failings of Project Shield, a state program initiated in 2003 to create a network of video cameras and other integrated devices to connect 128 municipalities in Cook County, allowing first-responders to better react to major emergencies.

“When you waste Homeland Security money, you are less safe … This put our citizens at risk,” U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-5th District, said.

Quigley and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation Monday to launch a criminal probe into how contractors made decisions and how Cook County spent grant money for Project Shield.

“We may have more than just a problem of lackadaisical management. This program may have been looted by Cook County officials and the primary and secondary contractors involved,” Kirk said.

Kirk pointed to 168 changes made to contracts during the project’s first four years. The changes all increased the cost of the project — one change alone increased the cost by $413,555 — but there was no documentation of what specifically the extra cost went toward, according to the report.

“Money was paid to contractors and subcontractors for additional or different work and yet we have no idea what they did or how it was accounted for,” Kirk said.

Andrew Ross, a spokesman for the FBI, said the bureau would discuss the allegations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago and decide whether to move forward with an investigation.

Cook County originally was awarded $58.7 million for the project through Urban Areas Security Initiative grants, which were funneled through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, but only spent $45 million before the program was nixed last June.

Because grant money is distributed as needed, there was no excess funding leftover from the failed program.

“Project Shield expenditures were not adequately authorized, supported, and verified. The weaknesses can be attributed to Cook County’s inadequate management of the project, as well as the ineffective monitoring by FEMA and the State of Illinois,” the Inspector General's report said.

Generally, municipalities were given through the project two vehicle-based cameras, one stationary video camera and one wireless Internet access point. Several police departments said they were not given proper training on the equipment, according to the report.

Equipment problems and cost overruns caused the county to scrap the first contractor, IBM, a technology company, four years into the project and $23 million after the program began. The Inspector General’s report said a sampling of equipment decommissioned during IBM’s tenure showed that 18 percent of the items were missing.

“Obviously that could have been fenced. That gives you the indication that criminal activity may have happened here,” Kirk said.

Scott Cook, spokesman for IBM, declined to address Kirk's allegations.

The county then paid Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, a Wisconsin technology company, $23 million to continue the project before ending it entirely.

Michael Masters took over the executive director position of the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management last summer. He said the Inspector General’s findings mirrored an internal audit his department conducted last year on Project Shield.

Despite the report, internal audit, the end of the program and new calls for criminal investigations, the still-working physical paraphernalia like video cameras and wireless Internet hot spots are available but unused.

“Where possible we will repurpose and reallocate Project Shield equipment … We are moving it in an entirely new direction,” he said.

Masters said his department is studying the county to determine potential security risks, and that will determine where working gear will go.

Quigley said he was dismayed by the possibility of a taxpayer boondoggle so significant, not only because of the money wasted.

“There is a deficiency of trust that we are facing when things like this happen. We can calculate the loss to taxpayers, but I will assure you the greatest cost is the deficiency of trust,” Quigley said.

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