NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency's director is responding to a federal audit recommending that the Federal Emergency Management Agency take back nearly all $3.5 million in grants allocated to a church school in Gulfport after Hurricane Katrina.
Lee Smithson notes that FEMA hasn't cut any money allocated for Hope Academy, and expects to finish its review by Jan. 31. Smithson adds that the grants were made before he became MEMA's director, and he has increased coordination among the agency's divisions.
"No longer are the six offices in the Agency operating independently of one another, we are now one MEMA," he wrote. "We have instituted checks and balances across MEMA to provide better transparency of all projects and initiatives we manage.
Smithson's comments were made in what the agency sent as an "op-ed" column — an opinion piece intended to run on the page facing a newspaper's editorial page.
The audit by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general's office was published on the agency's website last month.
Hope Academy's board chairman, Martin Goldin, said the school actually got $2.8 million, not $3.5 million.
FEMA said it has revised "guidance" on documentation and eligibility requirements, and is refining its process for getting such documentation. It expects to complete other reviews recommended in the report by Jan. 31, it said.
The audit said the school wasn't eligible for the grants, but a FEMA spokeswoman said Thursday that additional documentation convinced auditors that they had been wrong about that.
The report also said FEMA ignored a conflict of interest when Hope Academy agreed to pay a company run by Goldin nearly $1.5 million for land.
A civilian review board did not find any conflict but cut the payment to $500,000, Goldin said. FEMA spokeswoman Alexa Lopez noted that Golden joined the school board after land purchase talks ended.