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GAO: ‘Enhanced Controls’ Needed to Prevent Fraudulent Surplus Military Gear Transfers

A controversial federal program providing surplus military gear to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies hasn’t been properly verifying applications for the transfer of various controlled property, including simulated rifles and pipe bombs, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found.

The 1033 program, administered through the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), allows for the transfer of property to federal and state agencies, including small arms and ammunition, found to be in excess of Defense Department needs and suitable for civilian law enforcement use.

According to the report, more than $6 billion worth of excess materiel has been transferred to over 8,600 agencies nationwide since the program’s inception—with roughly 4 to 7 percent of such equipment being classified as “controlled.” Controlled items are sensitive in nature and require specific actions for proper disposal, and include night-vision goggles, bomb-disposal robots, small arms, and mine-resistant armored personnel (MRAP) vehicles, among others.

The GAO’s audit of the program found that while 1033 administrators have made progress in addressing previously identified weaknesses in the program, there remain “deficiencies in the processes for the verification and approval of federal law enforcement applications and the transfer of controlled property.”

Specifically, GAO officials found that DLA personnel did not routinely request and verify the identification of those picking up controlled property, or verify the quantity of approved materiel prior to transfer. In one example, GAO investigators posing as law enforcement officials of a fictitious federal agency were granted access to the 1033 program in early 2017. Less than a week after submitting their requests, investigators were approved for the transfer of over 100 controlled items valued at more than $1.2 million, including “non-lethal items and potentially-lethal items if modified with commercially-available material.” In this instance, investigators were also given extra equipment that they didn’t initially request.

According to the report, the DLA’s internal controls were “not adequate to prevent the approval of fraudulent application to obtain access to controlled property.”

Unfortunately, the potential for fraud or abuse under the 1033 program isn’t a new revelation. In early 2016, a survey of Texas’ participation in the 1033 program by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found other examples in which law enforcement agencies were abusing the program, sometimes for financial gain.

One investigation from Pinal County in Arizona found that sheriff’s officials were redistributing equipment from the program to non-law enforcement agencies, and intended to auction off other pieces—a violation of program rules. In Texas, Rising Star Chief of Police Jason Kelcy was indicted in 2014 for selling, trading, and pawning several items acquired through the 1033 program, including an M14 machine gun.

The GAO’s report lends further credence to the argument that greater transparency and protections are necessary to prevent potentially dangerous military equipment—including certain high-powered weaponry, or fake pipe bombs which require only minor retooling to become actual pipe bombs—from being fraudulently acquired, or even from falling into the wrong hands.

To that end, the GAO has recommended that DLA officials review and revise policies relating to verification and approval of program applications, and to require greater compliance among those tasked with requesting and verifying identification of those seeking access to the program.

Asking to see identification from those picking up high-powered rifles, laser range-finding gear, or armored vehicles from the federal government seems like a no-brainer. But other reforms that states such as Texas can implement would be wise, as well—including limiting disbursements to non-traditional law enforcement agencies, and granting state-based officials “veto authority” over such disbursements.

Such reforms would strike an appropriate balance between providing law enforcement with the tools they need to protect the public, and ensuring that surplus military gear goes to the right place, for the right reasons.

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