WILKES-BARRE — Two city taxpayer advocates have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging city officials violated federal grant rules in applying for $500,000 for a records management system.
Joseph Wielgosz and Charlotte Raup say they uncovered a plethora of information that raises questions about whether Police Chief Gerry Dessoye provided inaccurate information on the grant form, and whether he also failed to reveal other information that might have made the city ineligible for the grant from the federal COPS program.
Among the key issues is whether the city improperly attempted to secure COPS funding to purchase computer equipment despite the fact it already had secured a separate state grant for the same equipment.
The matter involves a $200,000 grant the city received from the state Department of Community and Economic Development’s Community Conservation and Employment Program. The grant was earmarked to purchase computers, software and other items that were needed to run the Total Enforcement records management system. The grant was approved on Dec. 10, 2008, according to DCED.
Six months after the grant was approved, the city filed an application for the $500,000 COPS grant. A review of documents shows that grant, which was later modified, initially sought money for the same equipment that is listed in the DCED grant.
That could be a problem for the city because a section in the COPS grant says the funding cannot be used to “replace state, local, or Bureau of Indian Affairs funds that otherwise would be made available for the purposes of this grant.”
Corey Ray, a spokesman for the COPS program, said he would need to look into the matter further to determine if a possible violation occurred.
“If you’ve already gotten money allocated to a project, you can’t take our funds,” Ray said. “I need to pull the file to take another look … I want to see if they accounted for any of that funding.”
Drew McLaughlin, administrative coordinator for Wilkes-Barre, said officials are confident they did nothing wrong with the COPS grant application.
The initial grant application, filed on June 23, 2009, sought funding for the purchase of computers, software and assorted hardware and other items needed to implement the Total Enforcement system. The equipment included 12 laptop computers, eight desktop computers, two computer servers, mounting packages and installation. Those items are identical to items sought, and later approved, for the $200,000 DCED grant.
The city later modified its COPS grant application to change the focus of the project. In an Oct. 23, 2009 letter to the COPS program, Dessoye earmarked the grant money for equipment that would allow the city to integrate the records management system with the citywide surveillance camera system.
The new request sought funding for 46 cameras that would be installed in city schools and 30 cameras for parking garages. A second modification, sought on Aug. 20, 2010, reduced the number of school cameras to eight and increased the number of parking garage cameras to 68.
City: Grants are OK
McLaughlin noted the city consulted with COPS officials on both modifications, and they were fully aware of all funding sources the city had for the project. A spreadsheet attached to the first modification request confirms the city noted both the $200,000 DCED grant and a second, $500,000 grant it got from DCED.
“It should also be noted that all federal and state grants for the records management system project have been audited and closed out with no findings,” McLaughlin said.
Ray said COPS officials need more information regarding when the grants were allocated before they could make a determination of whether a violation occurred. He was looking into the matter as of Thursday, he said.
Wielgosz and Raup’s complaints also raise questions about the modifications and whether the city has achieved the stated goals of the project to integrate the cameras and records management systems.
Wielgosz and Raup, who filed separate complaints, each contend Dessoye made a false statement when he checked “no” to a question in a final project report that asked if there were any problems in implementing the project.
The grant application said the integration would allow officers to receive live video feed from a surveillance camera to a laptop computer in their car. It also would include license plate recognition cameras in the city’s parking garages that would send an alert to the computers if a car that is being sought in an investigation drove by.
Neither of those capabilities has been realized yet, Dessoye acknowledged in an interview Wednesday.
The city also had problems in connecting laptop computers in cars with the database due to issues with the Wi-Fi connections. The cruiser laptops sat unused for about 1 1/2 years before the city resolved the issues this February.
Given that, Wielgosz and Raup contend that Dessoye should have noted the implementation problems, and that by checking “no” he made a false statement.
Chief defends paperwork
Questioned about his answer, Dessoye said he answered the question in that manner because he believed it related to the records management system itself and not any technical issues that might delay the full implementation of the program.
“By my standards, (the problems) had nothing to do with Total Enforcement,” he said. “It had more to do with after-market hardware. My concern was with the system. Do I have a records management system that’s functional? Yes I do.”
According to Lou Lau, the city’s Internet technology director, the five license plate integration cameras are working. They cannot transmit data to laptops yet because the city needs to obtain the database against which the cameras will match a license plate they scan. The city is attempting to obtain that file now.
The city also is working on implementing video streaming to laptops, McLaughlin said. The city only recently resolved technological problems that precluded the laptops from obtaining a Wi-Fi signal. Streaming of video is part of a long-range plan for the system.
Whether Dessoye’s answer could be considered “false” is subject to interpretation, Ray said.
“With technology purchases or any grant, we like to see them utilized as effectively as possible,” he said. “We do know there can be quite a few glitches, especially if you are tying into other systems, and we try to allow ample time for an agency to do that.”
COPS officials did discuss the various implementation issues with the city prior to closing the grant out, said Ray, and officials advised them they were working on the connectivity problems. That satisfied them at the time, he said, but it is possible the agency might again look into the matter.
“Just because we close out a grant does not mean it’s not subject to further action, like an audit or further monitoring by our office or the office of inspector general,” Ray said.