Author photo

Carolina Journal News Reports

Review Blasts Price Earmark Waste

Fears surface that CSSP may have ‘squandered’ funds

Aug. 31st, 2009
More |

CARRBORO — A program funded with millions of dollars from an earmark obtained by North Carolina U.S. Rep. David Price has been criticized in a UNC-Chapel Hill review for having a poorly defined mission, a spotty record on personnel matters, and a history of misappropriating funds to irrelevant activities.

Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, announced four years ago that he had secured a $5 million federal earmark for the Citizen-Soldier Support Program, an obscure UNC-Chapel Hill program meant to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress has appropriated $9.8 million in federal defense dollars to the program since 2005.

The funds, Price said when announcing the earmark, would allow the program to expand statewide and provide “critical support” for military members and their families “at a time when it’s desperately needed.”

But there appears to be scant expertise among permanent staffers at the CSSP in military and behavioral health issues, and some of the program’s five full-time employees appear to have leftist political leanings. Until this year, no staff member appears to have had experience in the armed services, either.

The CSSP earmark, one of hundreds in defense appropriations in 2005, might have gone unnoticed. But criticisms — ranging from accusations of poor management, inordinately high salaries and expense accounts, and pricey payments to out-of-state consultants — have dogged the program, thrusting it into the public eye.

Many of those worries culminated in a recent internal UNC-Chapel Hill review (PDF download).

In addition to evidence described in the UNC-Chapel Hill review, public records obtained by Carolina Journal raise questions about the cost-effectiveness of the program. Documents show that a majority of CSSP’s full-time employees take home six-figure salaries, and some have wracked up extensive traveling expenses. Yet the program has a dubious record of accomplishments over the past three years.

Until recently, two of the program’s top managers lived in other states and only showed up in North Carolina periodically. That arrangement laid the groundwork for rumors that CSSP “may have squandered a substantial portion of its funding on overpaid, under-supervised staffers,” according to the UNC-Chapel Hill review.

CSSP officials requested that CJ direct any questions about the administration of the program to UNC-Chapel Hill attorneys and public-information officers.

CSSP has already burned through much of the nearly $10 million it has received since 2005, leaving about $2.5 million for the 2010 fiscal year.

UNC-Chapel Hill leaders who oversee the program are quick to acknowledge that changes need to be made, but they are also quick to defend its continued funding. And Price, whose district stretches from Raleigh to northern Orange County, is standing by CSSP as well.

“As this audit reveals, there have been some significant problems in the administration of the program,” Price said in a statement e-mailed to CJ, “but my understanding is that UNC has taken concrete steps to address these issues and has adjusted the CSSP model to ensure it is meeting the needs of our soldiers.”

An ‘ill-defined’ mission

Although hosted by the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, CSSP’s offices are located on the second floor of a mini-mall in downtown Carrboro, located southeast of Chapel Hill.

The program is designed to help “soldiers and their families by engaging and connecting military and community service systems,” according to its Web site. That’s a mission UNC-Chapel Hill officials called “ambitious and ill-defined.”

During the last two years, CSSP has helped to create behavioral health curricula, participated in behavioral health seminars, and worked with the U.S. Army JAG and others to assist military families with legal issues. CSSP is also developing online training tutorials for behavioral health specialists.

The UNC-Chapel Hill review, however, concluded that the program has suffered from rapidly changing objectives, has diverged from its main goals on occasion, and has produced few concrete plans for the future.

“In general, we believe that the CSSP is vulnerable to the accusation that it spends too much money on administrative overhead and low-priority, ‘nice-to-do’ activities and not enough time on activities directly relevant to its mission,” the review says.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials also found that CSSP has had a strained relationship with military leaders, particularly those in the Army National Guard. The program initially enjoyed “substantial funding, goodwill, and cooperation from key collaborators and Congressional leaders, as well as from UNC-Chapel Hill administration,” but “much of this goodwill began to erode,” the review says.

High salaries, consultant fees

One of the reasons is the perception that CSSP overpays its employees. The program has 12 staff members — five full-time, seven part-time — whose salaries are drawn from federal funds.

CSSP’s director and deputy director earn $129,600 and $120,000 per year, respectively, while one of its three program managers takes home as much as $141,606 annually. The other two program managers each earn around $75,000 a year.

The review suggested that CSSP “take a long, hard look at the salaries it pays to its staff and the fees it pays to its vendors and contractors.” The review found one case “in which a staff member was paid approximately twice what other UNC employees would typically receive for similar work, and several other cases in which salaries were substantially higher than those for comparable employees on campus.”

UNC-Chapel Hill officials also fingered travel reimbursements and consultant fees as potential problems. Susan Kerner-Hoeg, who joined the program as director of military relations in 2006, is a full-time employee but lives in the Washington, D.C., area, partly to help attract investment from officials at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Kerner-Hoeg visits the Carrboro offices, on average, two or three times a month, according to Peter Leousis, deputy director of the Odum Institute and the official responsible for CSSP. She is reimbursed for miles traveled between her home and Carrboro.

The university has reimbursed her about $10,239 over the last three years for a rental car that she uses around town. Records show that she incurred $14,491.93 in total travel expenses during her first nine months on the job.

An internal UNC-Chapel Hill audit released in June found that CSSP’s travel reimbursements were appropriate based on Kerner-Hoeg’s arrangement to work from her home in Virginia. UNC-Chapel Hill provided a redacted copy of the audit (PDF download) to CJ.

Questions have also arisen regarding CSSP’s contract with a Kansas-based consultant, Kent Peterson, who was paid $150 an hour for “strategic thinking and action” that included “developingand disseminating” the program’s bi-monthly electronic newsletter.

CSSP agreed to pay Peterson $340,500 for his services (PDF download of first and second contracts), including a $25,000 travel retainer. The university paid around $215,000 of that total between August 2007 and February 2009.

During that time, Peterson was considered director of community relations. The UNC-Chapel Hill review called his management role “not appropriate” given his out-of-state status.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials responsible for oversight of the program say the fees were in line with federal standards, but admit that CSSP is now moving away from the consultant.

“I think there was value [in the work], but I’m not qualified to say whether we got $150 an hour or not. It’s really a judgment call,” said Neil Caudle, communications director for UNC-Chapel Hill.

Experience, political leanings

Information culled from public records and social networking Web sites suggests that some of CSSP’s employees lack experience in military or behavioral health issues, and many have leftist political leanings.

Bob Goodale, who joined the program in 2007, is a former Harris Teeter CEO and served as deputy secretary of the N.C. Commerce Department in the Hunt administration. He is listed as a program manager for mental health on CSSP’s Web site.

In 1955, Goodale received a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in dairy science from Iowa State University, and two decades later a master’s degree in business administration. His only military-related experience appears to be a stint in the U.S. Army after he completed his bachelor’s degree.

Similarly, CSSP’s newest program manager, Brenna Burch, apparently has no military or behavioral health credentials, nor direct experience with either topic.

She has a master’s degree in public administration and an undergraduate degree in English, according to her Facebook page, and past experience as an information specialist for M.C. Dean, Inc., and fiscal analyst in the N.C. General Assembly. She is listed as a program manager for knowledge and community outreach on CSSP’s Web site.

Burch also appears to have strong political leanings. “I would love to see Glenn Beck’s a-- get shipped to a [forward operating base] in [Afghanistan]. Common sense, my a--," she wrote in an update on her Twitter account dated Aug. 19 [emphasis in original].

Beck is a conservative radio and television host and author of the book Common Sense, which advocates for limited government.

In another Twitter update posted the same day, Burch calls the conservative-leaning cable news network Fox News a “horses--t” organization.

Facebook pages for Barbara Hall, who works as a community outreach program manager for CSSP, and Leousis list support for President Barack Obama. Hall is registered as unaffiliated and Leousis as a Democrat.

William Abb, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who joined CSSP in April, appears to be the lone full-time staffer with extensive military experience. He and Goodale are the only registered Republicans who work for the program full time.

Details redacted

The Chapel Hill campus provided a heavily redacted version of its internal report on CSSP to CJ, citing an exemption in the state’s public records law that prohibits release of personnel information. In telephone interviews and e-mail correspondence, officials declined to comment on alleged wrongdoing by employees.

“Without the lawyer here, I’m not sure how much we can say about that because we cross a line into confidential personnel information that we’re not allowed to divulge,” Caudle said.

UNC-Chapel Hill plans to continue housing and supporting CSSP, says Tony Waldrop, vice chancellor for research and economic development at the university and head of the internal review committee. He pointed to an implementation plan developed by CSSP that aims to correct problems identified by his office.

“I believe in the goals of the program,” Waldrop said, “and think the team is working very hard right now to show how important it is and to really serve the intent that was there in the beginning.”

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.

[Editor's note: This article has been corrected to clarify that the Citizen-Soldier Support Program is administered by UNC-Chapel Hill. The review and audit of CSSP were conducted by UNC-Chapel Hill and not the UNC system.]