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The federal government–relevant, after all?

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Hurricane Sandy is nowhere near done pummeling the D.C. area tonight, but FedLine can’t help noticing how the storm has already showered attention on the federal government’s role in anticipating and responding to disasters.

Last Friday, for example, The New York Times ran a front-page article on how delays in development of the next generation of weather satellites could jeopardize future forecasting. That risk would not have come as news to Federal Times readers, but the mainstream media had previously paid little attention to the issue.

Since then, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has had to fend off questions over whether he wants to cut funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And at least one network newscast this evening carried a feature story on the Coast Guard’s rescue earlier in the day of 14 crew members from a replica of the H.M.S. Bounty that foundered off the coast of North Carolina.

This is not to say that Washington does everything well (as the Times story points out, mismanagement has been one factor in throwing the weather satellite program off track), or that it’s unreasonable to ask whether some missions can be carried out differently or more efficiently. But whether you think the federal government’s size is too big, too small or just right, there is no denying that we currently expect it to play a very large role in situations like this. And if it doesn’t take that responsibility, it is reasonable to ask: Who will?

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Audit finds problems in ACORN grant

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ACORN may have filed for bankruptcy last month, but its name continues to surface: A newly released audit finds that the Federal Emergency Management Agency skirted the rules to award an ACORN affiliate $450,484 in fire prevention and safety funds.

The idea behind the fiscal 2007 grant was to let the ACORN Institute develop best practices for community organizations to canvass high-risk neighborhoods and install smoke detectors and other safety equipment, according to the audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

In its grant application, the ACORN Institute claimed to have plenty of experience in that line via a program known as the Urban Fire Initiative. As it turned out, that initiative was concocted for the grant application; the IG found no evidence that it had ever been involved in any previous fire prevention and safety activities.

A FEMA panel of fire service experts recommended against funding the institute’s application. FEMA officials then overrode that recommendation without documenting how they had addressed the panel’s concerns. They did, however, cut the institute’s request from $1 million to $450,484 and said the grant was approved because it was for a “concentrated effort for prevention in high risk communities.” FEMA later awarded the ACORN Institute almost another $1 million, but after Congress shut down federal funding for ACORN, that 2008 grant was rescinded.

For anyone who’s forgotten, ACORN is the community organizing group where a couple of employees were caught in a video sting offering advice on how to set up a prostitution ring.

ACORN never recovered from the ensuring hullabaloo and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month. That may make it difficult for FEMA to follow through on one of the inspector general’s recommendations: Requiring the ACORN Institute to return almost $161,000 in undocumented grant expenses.

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