A state official responsible for administering homeland security grants defended his office’s decision to take control of local grants allocated to the East Baton Rouge Parish.
“It’s not political,” said Mark Cooper, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, in response to comments made by Mayor-President Kip Holden. “This isn’t about East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s about all 64 parishes, but it just so happens that they’re the only parish that’s out of compliance.”
On Tuesday, Cooper sent a letter to JoAnne Moreau, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security, informing her that the state would be taking control of $1.1 million in homeland security grants for the parish because of Holden’s refusal to abide by state grant guidelines.
Cooper said what was supposed to happen, and what’s happened in every other parish in the state, is that the chief law enforcement officer is expected to collaborate with the leader of the parish’s emergency management team to determine how the grant would be spent, ensuring that at least 25 percent is dedicated to law enforcement.
For Baton Rouge, those players are the sheriff and the mayor-president.
“The mayor has not allowed the sheriff to see what the spending plan is nor have they collaborated, nor has he gotten his signature,” Cooper said. “So the difference is that we’re bifurcating the grant and giving part to the sheriff and part to the mayor.”
The sheriff will represent a group of local law enforcement leaders from each of the parish’s municipalities. They will receive 25 percent of the grant, worth $330,720.
MOHSEP will receive the remaining 75 percent on behalf of the parish.
Both the sheriff and the Mayor’s Office will have to create spending plans for their portion of the funds to be reviewed by July 18.
If either party fails to submit a spending plan, the funds could be made available to other “approved entities in East Baton Rouge Parish or the state,” Cooper said, adding that the sheriff has indicated he will comply.
On Tuesday, Holden characterized the letter as a political stunt trying to portray him as “anti-law enforcement.”
He noted that GOHSEP, as the administrator of grants, has had the power to give grant money to law enforcement all along, and denies claims that he’s been holding up the process.
Both GOHSEP and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux have urged Holden to allow the sheriff to sign the grants application, as required by state grants guidelines.
But Holden attempted to submit the applications without Gautreaux’s signature because he says the requirement is a violation of state law and that GOHSEP has no legal authority to impose the requirement.
“That’s incorrect,” Cooper said. “We are the grantee for the state, and the federal government gives us the authority to distribute the grants. We distribute the grants based on those guidelines.”
Cooper also said the sheriff’s signature is not a new requirement. He said it is a “pre-existing requirement that was not enforced by the previous administration.”
Cooper said the collaboration between law enforcement and the parish president is essential to make sure there are no duplication of requests.
“This is more or less to make sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” he said.
GOHSEP will only be taking over two out of four homeland security grants in dispute.
The $1.1 million currently at issue is part of the State Homeland Security Program.
Another $2.9 million in grants under the Urban Area Security Initiative Program also await the sheriff’s signature.
Cooper said the state could take similar action with the money, and directly allocate law enforcement 25 percent.
“We hope that through this process, with this letter, the mayor will agree to sit down with the sheriff and there will be no need for us to send another letter (regarding the UASI grants).”
In a statement released Wednesday, Gautreaux said he is disappointed that the situation required intervention.
“But I’m glad they exercised their right to do so,” he said. “We can now move on with the business at hand.”
He also said he no longer wishes to be “part of the circus (Holden) has created over this issue.”
Some council members say they are concerned about whether the state’s intervention will hamper the parish’s ability to be reimbursed for money already spent.
Cooper said as long as funds meet the criteria set up by GOHSEP and the Department of Homeland Security, requests should be approved.
“We have never had an item rejected in the history of this parish,” Holden said Tuesday referring to grant reimbursements.
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker said he’s disappointed the situation required state intervention.
“It’s totally unnecessary that it had to get to that length,” Walker said. “If you have a problem with the way it has been done, then take it to court after you have dispersed money to law enforcement. That’s the way it should have been handled.”