RALEIGH – An embattled university program meant to assist soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan must shape up or lose its taxpayer funding, say many of the same North Carolina congressional lawmakers who supported the program’s initial federal commitment five years ago.
The Citizen-Soldier Support Program, housed at the Odum Institute for Research in Social Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is meant to connect veterans and their families with support systems in local communities. But the program has drawn criticism in recent weeks after an internal UNC-CH review flagged a series of management, personnel, and financial problems.
As Carolina Journal and the News & Observer of Raleigh reported, CSSP has burned through most of its $10 million in federal funding with little to show for it. Over half of its employees earn six-figure salaries, and some have racked up extensive traveling expenses, laying the groundwork for rumors that CSSP “may have squandered a substantial portion of its funding on overpaid, under-supervised staffers,” according to the internal review.
The program has also faced criticism for agreeing to pay a Kansas-based consultant up to $340,000 and for reimbursing its deputy director, who lives in northern Virginia, for travel between her home and CSSP’s offices in Carrboro.
Those expenses, mixed with other problems identified by the university review, have raised objections among North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
“This program appears to have produced almost no results — other than nice salaries for consultants and bureaucrats,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th District.
“Many of our guardsmen have been deployed two or three times to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that takes a heavy toll on their families back home,” said Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat from the 13th District. “But worthy goals do not excuse poor performance. I won’t support the program again unless the program fixes the problems that the university’s internal review found.”
Miller’s colleague in the House, 4th District Democrat David Price, was responsible for securing the largest chunk of federal funding — $5 million in 2005. In a statement e-mailed to CJ in late August, Price acknowledged problems in the program but said that UNC-Chapel Hill “has taken concrete steps to address these issues.”
The $5-million earmark had unanimous support from the state’s congressional delegation, according to a UNC-CH press release from June 2005. A number of lawmakers are now having second thoughts, however.
“I will not continue to support federally funded programs that do not reach the goals originally intended for the recipients. The American taxpayers deserve better,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-3rd.
“The program has failed to put the needs of our Reserve Component members and their families first, and I do not think that the program should be allowed to continue as it currently is administered,” said 9th District GOP Rep. Sue Myrick.
Myrick said she received an anonymous complaint in 2008 about abuses in the CSSP and subsequently contacted UNC system President Erskine Bowles.
“In his response he gave me assurance that each of the allegations would be reviewed,” Myrick said. “Now, I’m again receiving anonymous faxes about the program, and with the results of the latest audit now public — it’s not good.”
Foxx said excesses in the program are an example of why she took a no-earmark pledge in 2007. “Too much taxpayer money gets frittered away like this with little to no oversight,” she said.
Calls and e-mails to spokesmen for Reps. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st; Mike McIntyre, D-7th; Larry Kissell, D-8th; and Patrick McHenry, R-10th, were not returned by press time.
Reached by phone, Doug Abrahms, spokesman for 11th District Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler, noted that Shuler was not in Congress when funding for CSSP was first authorized. Asked if Shuler would support continued funding, Abrahms said, “It’s not something that’s on his agenda right now.”
Since reports on the internal review first surfaced in late August, university officials have said that improvements need to be made or else CSSP should be terminated.
“We need this program to show dramatic improvement in a short period of time to remain viable” said UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp at a Board of Trustees meeting Sept. 24.
Kimrey Rhinehardt, vice president for federal relations at UNC General Administration, sent an e-mail dated Aug. 17 to Bowles saying that were it not for CSSP’s behavioral health initiative, which she said had produced “good work,” she would recommend that the entire program be ended.
“I think that the CSSP leadership should be permitted a supervised opportunity to dramatically improve the Program subject to review by their National Advisory Committee and Review Committee,” Rhinehardt wrote. “If momentum does not tend toward progress by October 23, 2009, then remaining federal funds should be returned and the program should be terminated.”
The review committee that authored the internal report is continuing to monitor the program, said UNC-CH spokesman Mike McFarland.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.
[Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Rhinehardt urged the termination of CSSP were it not for the program’s behavioral health initiative, which she commended in her e-mail.]