Less than two weeks after taking over, Mobile Police Chief James Barber says an investigation is underway into allegations that federal money may have been improperly used to take officers, city employees and their relatives on ski trips and other junkets related to the Police Explorers program.
“The investigation into the police explorers program is already underway. If someone did anything wrong, I want to know about it now. I’ve been in office for nine days (as of Nov. 21). I want to clean out our closets. Transparency is a big part of having the public trust you…. I want to find any misconduct from officers and deal with it. Then we can move forward,” Barber said.
Questions about the Explorers trips first surfaced externally more than a year ago, but then-Police Chief Micheal Williams showed little interest in looking into the matter and blocked Lagniappe from obtaining public records related to the trips. Only after the paper filed suit against the department for illegally withholding the records did MPD hand over incomplete records. Williams also filed an affidavit with Circuit Court Judge Rick Stout claiming the department had supplied all records related to the newspaper’s initial filing.
However, after continued pressure, the city and department supplied more than 6,000 additional pages of records, some of which were pertinent to the initial filing. Examination of those records turned up almost 500 names of those involved in the Explorers program, although most did not attend the trips. Some of the trips examined had more than 100 attendees, while others were in the 40s.
Asked about the investigation, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office deferred to Barber.
“Chief Barber is aware of the allegations and is looking into them. Beyond that, the mayor can not comment on an active investigation,” Stimpson’s spokesman George Talbot said.
The mayor was asked during a press meeting Nov. 15 if he was aware of any federal investigation into the matter, but he said he did not know anything about that.
At the heart of the issue is not only who attended the trips, but how they were paid for. The Mobile Housing Board often supplied money for trips, ostensibly for those Explorers who were involved with the program through MHB. Mayor Sam Jones’ Office of Strategic Initiatives also supplied Weed & Seed grant money meted out by Donna Mitchell, who ran the office.
Mitchell and her OSI co-worker Barbara Wolfe attended at least a couple of Explorer trips, even though they seemed to have little direct involvement in the program.
Because the records supplied were duplicated many times and often incomplete, putting together complete lists of who attended each trip between 2008 and 2011 has been difficult. Address comparisons do seem to help show that at least some officers involved in the program routinely had their own children along on trips.
For example, Third Precinct Commander Capt. Carla Longmire, who oversaw the Explorer program, has a son who attended at least four trips according to records. Two people who list themselves at the same address as Wolfe attended the same 2011 ski trip she did. Officer Kathy Battiste also appears to have a child who went on a couple of trips.
Still, some of the officers who attended Explorers trips did not supply home addresses in the documents, making it difficult to match them with other attendees.
Records recovered show internal emails between MPD and city officials discussing the suspicion that some city employees, their children and spouses were improperly attending the federally funded trips.
According to a Sept. 7, 2011, document entitled “MPD Internal Analysis and Recommendations for MHB Explorers Program,” problems with the Explorers trips first came to light a month earlier.
“Discrepancies within the MPD and Mobile Housing Board Explorers Program first surfaced on August 11, 2011 after being contacted by City Accounting. Accounting rejected the request for payment of credit card bill because the charges incurred on the Explorers DC/NY Trip were in excess of the approved budget submitted by MPD to MHB,” the document reads. “Additionally, a Single Audit is being conducted over the next few weeks on all grants, contracts and agreements held within City Accounting. This will require review of the MHB Explorers contract with the MPD. There are some of the same issues present with lack of oversight and monitoring of this grant as was in the HUD CDBG Grant that was the subject of a federal audit of MHB in 2010.”
That analysis said the program was, “in complete disarray and warrants immediate action and correction.” It goes on to add, “There seems to be no internal or external controls governing the MPD Explorer Program and its staff that requires a complete overhaul of the program at this time.”
Other findings are that the program had a “lack of administrative oversight and supervision of staff,” “Required Explorers programs and workshops are not being provided by MPD staff,” “Too many non-MHB Explorer Posts to be effective; does not fulfill the purpose of the Explorers Program,” and “No grant program or financial reporting submitted to MHB as required by grant contract.”
The analysis recommended a 60-day suspension of the program as well as assigning new personnel to supervise it. It also recommended shifting away from two large trips a year to “activities that include the training and workshop requirements.”
The analysis also points out that grant requirements for the program were that 35-45 MHB Explorers be involved, but that the count at that time was “6 or 9 depending upon which roster you consult.”
Also in question is Chief Williams’ use of seized drug monies to pay some of the expenses of these trips, especially after it was determined many of those attending were not eligible to be paid for under federal guidelines.
An internal email from city accountant Lona Whitlock to MPD Grants Coordinator Laura Angle indicates Williams used more than $21,800 in seized money from the “drug fund” to make up for un-allowed costs associated with two 2011 trips. Whitlock reports that $12,913.42 was charged to the drug fund for the Gatlinburg ski trip, and $8,914.18 was charged for the NYC/DC trip.