Government surplus items sold to buy police cars. Police chief to make public presentation at Feb. 10 council meeting.
Despite multiple requests over the last few months, the Dewey Beach Police Department has yet to publicly account for equipment valued at more than $3 million obtained through a federal military surplus program.
The Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office program, a U.S. Department of Defense initiative known as the 1033 Program, distributes excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies. It’s all free. That includes everything from clothing to aircraft, and the police department has long been an active participant.
Dewey Beach has a population of about 400 nine months of the year, but the number of people in the tiny 21-block town grows astronomically in the summer. The town has eight full-time officers, three part-time officers and three support staff, according to its website. For Fiscal Year 2017, the department budget was about $1.1 million.
Despite Dewey’s miniscule size, the items in their 2017 LESO inventory were worth big money. Those items included a “small craft boat,” eight laptop computers, a forklift, five utility trucks, a “platform servicing” truck, a “van,” four diesel generators, five rifles and four pistols – some, like weapons, are “controlled property” and others are assigned an “A” code.
For example, between 2013 and 2016, Dewey’s police department asked for, and got, four boats valued at $19,778.20 each and three others valued at $200. In 2017 it got another, value $9,580.
For the equipment transferred to Dewey Beach PD in 2017, see this page.
For the equipment transferred to Dewey Beach PD 2013-2016, see this page.
For the police department's controlled property, see this page.
The Department of Defense assigns each kind of equipment or supplies a “Demil Code.” Anything with Demil Code A is automatically given to the law enforcement agency after a year. Anything with any other code has to be reported to the DLA every year, and legal title remains with the DOD.
Office supplies, tools, certain electronics and the like are required to be held for one year. Then they may be kept, sold or gifted at the department’s discretion, with no further reporting required. Controlled property includes items like firearms and certain vehicles, and ongoing inventories have to be filed with the Defense Logistics Agency through a computer system called FEPMIS.
About 35 police agencies in Delaware take advantage of the surplus program to a greater or lesser extent.
Comparing equipment received by small departments to town population, Dewey Beach by far leads the rest of the state with more than $5,000 in surplus gear received per resident.Middletown, population 18,871.
$0.48 per resident
Georgetown, population 6,422
$7.43 per resident
Harrington, population 3,562
$441.66 per resident
Bethany Beach, population 1,060
$47.60 per resident
South Bethany, population 449
$139.48 per resident
Dewey Beach, population 341
$5,089.95 per resident
Note: 2015 inventory. Equipment and supplies are valued at the federal government’s price. Because it is surplus, street value is less depending on condition.
Town officials in the dark
Apparently, the town government has not been privy to the scope of police participation.
The department bought two new police cruisers in April 2016 with money that came from selling unused surplus equipment. In early 2017, former town manager Marc Appelbaum announced his intent to investigate. Shortly thereafter Appelbaum was accused of misconduct by multiple police officers and town employees.
In September, Wilmington lawyer Max Walton’s independent investigation reported no reason to fire the town manager. The same report disclosed the off-budget activities in the Dewey Beach Police Department.
After the election of new mayor TJ Redefer, Appelbaum parted ways with the town. By then, though, he wasn’t the only one questioning transactions with LESO equipment, and Redefer and the town council promised to look into it.
In December, they voted to hire accounting firm TGM Group of Salisbury, Md. to audit the LESO program, among other things. Redefer said, at the Jan. 13 commissioners’ meeting, the audit had begun.
Commissioner Paul Bauer, elected at the same time as Redefer, gave a public presentation at a the town council meeting. He insisted town oversight is unnecessary because the state conducts reviews.
To take part in the 1033 Program, a state signs a contract, or MOA, with the Defense Logistics Agency. That requires a State Plan of Operations for the 1033 Program, which the DLA approves. In turn, each police agency that takes part in the surplus giveaway signs the state plan.
Delaware’s 1033 Program coordinator is Delaware Emergency Management Agency Director A.J. Schall. The state coordinator signs the federal paperwork and is responsible for approving equipment applications. He is tasked with completing biannual DLA compliance reviews in concert with the feds.
Schall is responsible for suspending any agencies that violate program requirements.
The MOA says each state must audit at least 5 percent of participating police departments each year. A state coordinator can perform “spot checks” at any time. It is unclear when, where and how often they’re performed, if at all.
According to the state plan, “Property will not be obtained by an authorized participant for the purpose of sale, lease, loan, personal use, rent, exchange, barter, transfer or to secure a loan.”
However, receipts from a Freedom of Information Act request show the Dewey police sold LESO surplus through Wilson’s Auctions in Georgetown. They used that money to buy new police cruisers.
The plan also requires a satisfactory explanation of need and purpose for each item requested by a law enforcement agency.
Despite the fact that those requests are sent to Schall’s department, where he is the highest-ranking official and responsible for LESO oversight, Schall has repeatedly said he did not have access to any records. The Dewey police department did not return calls and emails did not return any calls or emails requesting more information on the surplus it has received.
Finally, every year the Dewey police must provide the state coordinator with serial numbers and photos of controlled property such as firearms, but neither the DBPD nor DEMA produced photos in response to FOIA requests.
Schall said last year, the state and selected police departments passed a biennial compliance review, completed by Schall and the DLA, with flying colors.
Dewey Citizens for Accountability is a recently-formed group of residents whose primary goal is to investigate the Dewey police department’s use of the LESO program. Following Bauer’s presentation, they submitted a scathing public report outlining the false assertions they say it contained.
“Fact: No bank deposit accounts from revenues are reviewed or audited by the LESO either at the state level or the federal level, or have ever been. Whatever accounts held by the police department were not even known by the Dewey auditors during the last audit of the town, and despite FOIAs our researchers were not able to identify any of the accounts, which were termed ’restricted accounts’ by Mr. Bauer during the presentation,” the report states.
Redefer said the town will continue to probe police finances. He said Chief Sam Mackert and other officers will meet with the commissioners in a Feb. 10 closed session.
“There are several personnel matters that have a potential to be discussed, and it could relate to the names, competencies and abilities of individual employees,” Redefer said in an email. “And that can’t be discussed in public.”
Asked about the topics to be discussed, Redefer replied by quoting two lines from state law. Asked to be more specific than that, Redefer replied, “We will have counsel at the meeting to make sure we do not stray [from the claimed personnel-related discussion].”
A presentation by Mackert is slated for 9 a.m., Feb. 10.
Contacted by email Monday, Redefer said a Feb. 2 executive session was for “reviewing recommendations of the Town Manager search committee.” The agenda topic was: “Discussion of town personnel matters regarding terms and conditions of employee contracts.” He said another executive session Feb. 9 is for “Town Personnel matters regarding terms and conditions of employee contracts,” but would not be more specific.
In an email received after press time, Redefer said he has asked the "State Auditor’s office to help reviewing the towns books. It took some time they agreed to review the work of TGM and make recommendations."
The town's lawyer "has advised that the commissioners cannot review the information of the interviews with DBPD in executive session," Redefer said. "So, on Saturday we will be reporting that we are working with the State, TGM, and the DBPD to get a complete report. In addition, we are building policies and procedures so that the Town will never be in this situation again."
State open meetings law is found in Title 29 Chapter 100, § 10004 of the Delaware Code. It does not allow an executive session to discuss operations of an agency or department. There are two personnel discussions allowed behind closed doors: “The hearing of employee disciplinary or dismissal cases unless the employee requests a public hearing;” and “Personnel matters in which the names, competency and abilities of individual employees or students are discussed, unless the employee or student requests that such a meeting be open.”
The fact that personnel matters might “have a potential to be discussed,” is not an allowable reason to close the meeting under state law. Rather, the public should be allowed to attend and hear the discussion until the point where a bona fide personnel question comes up.
Craig O'Donnell contributed to this story.