Sun Beam Times Investigative Report, by Dr. David McKalip (free email subscription to Sun Beam Times at SunBeamTimes.com). The Sun Beams Times has discovered that the PSTA (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority) has been abusing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant designed to help citizens prevent bombs from exploding on buses. Instead of working to stop bombings of buses, they PSTA is using the anti-terrorism grant to promote its services and the Greenlight Pinellas plan.
According to FEMA, the Transit Security Grant Program “(TSGP) grant was designed “to protect critical surface transportation infrastructure and the traveling public from acts of terrorism, major disasters, and other emergencies” (FEMA oversees the DHS program). The DHS Transit Security Grant Program has the stated intent of strengthening “homeland security preparedness, including the security of America’s critical infrastructure” and “implements objectives addressed in a series of post-9/11 laws, strategy documents, plans, Executive Orders (EOs), and Homeland Security Presidential Directives (HSPDs)”. PSTA was awarded $535,000, of which $439,254 was released in “phase II” for local media outreach to the community (grant numbers DHS #2010-RA-T0-0030 and DHS #EMW-2011-RA-00090 – Phase Two). The Sun Beam Times has discovered that these grants were not used as intended, but instead to create feel-good TV ads designed to promote the PSTA, transit services and the Greenlight Pinellas plan.
The DHS Transit Security grants were used to create three television ads (scripts at bottom and youtube video above). The three ads separately feature happy bus riders and extoll the virtues of the PSTA bus system’s link to technology, convenience and environmental friendliness. Each ad ends the same way: “And PSTA is working to make it easier to get around the county. To learn more, visit Greenlight Pinellas.com or PSTA.net”. The end of each ad features a Greenlight Pinellas logo, PSTA CARES logo and disclaimer indicating the ad was paid for by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
The DHS grant was used to fund the “PSTA CARES” campaign and is part of a Federal “Transit Watch” program. It was described to PSTA board members by PSTA staff on 3/13/14 as follows:
“Community Awareness Results in Everyone’s Safety” or CARES, campaign is a public awareness program that will incorporate the basics of the Transit Watch program and seeks to improve transit security, identify security-related barriers to transit, and provide for enhanced coordination and communication with our Safety and Security partners within the community.”
Transit watch is a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) program is in partnership with DHS and designed to promote public awareness of possible terrorist threats, like parcels and backpacks left behind that could be bombs. The Transit Watch program was updated in 2006 and features several messaging vehicle, all focused on helping citizens spot suspicious packages. The FTA describes Transit Watch as follows:
“Launched in 2003, Transit Watch is a nationwide public awareness outreach campaign that encourages the active participation of transit passengers and employees in maintaining a safe transit environment.”…“These materials include messages pertaining to unattended bags, evacuation procedures…, and the development of a “Five Step Strategy” for use in enhancing communication with State and Local Citizen Corps Councils.”
When the PSTA originally received the grant, they placed a Request for Proposal (RFP) notice to private contractors to accomplish the goals of the grant. The first part of the grant (phase I) was used to fund booths at community events and produce brochures that left no doubt what this grant was designed to do (brochure obtained by Sun Beam Times and available on request). The brochures dedicate the vast majority of the text to explaining how to spot suspicious activity, notify authorities on items that may be bombs and how PSTA is working with local first responders on security matters to deal with terrorism. Phase II of the grant was designed to further push the public awareness anti-terrorist program to local TV. According to the RFP put out by PSTA, the contractor they hired should meet these criteria:
“For phase two of this program, PSTA will work with an advertising agency to develop a mass-media outreach campaign to further promote the public awareness project. This shall include television, radio, billboard, cinema advertising, bus advertising, and a newspaper insert. These advertising elements combined with high frequency messaging will enhance the public’s awareness of their role in keeping the community safe.”
PSTA CEO Brad Miller was interviewed by Sun Beam Times founder and Editor Dr. David McKalip on this matter. Mr. Miller indicated that he had seen the ads and that they were indeed paid for with funding provided by DHS through the Transit Security Grant Program. He also indicated that the Department of Homeland Security had approved the commercials directly prior to publication (Sun Beam Times is working to verify this). Miller was asked to indicate if he felt that the average member of the public would feel they were being educated on safety by watching the PSTA CARES ads. He was asked how the ads would fulfill the requirement PSTA made of the grant contractor to ensure that they “will enhance the public’s awareness of their role in keeping the community safe.” Mr. Miller felt that the ads fulfilled their obligations under the grant and stated the ads are “promoting the message that riding public transportation is safe and secure”. When confronted with the notion that these ads do not help the public learn how to spot suspicious activities and merely are designed to promote PSTA and Greenlight Pinellas, he felt that that was just “an opinion” that he did not share.
PSTA was asked to share the application made to the Federal government for the grants to further understand what PSTA promised they would do with the funding. However, the PSTA declined to provide this application stating the applications were exempted from release under the Freedom of Information Act since they contained “Sensitive Security Information”. Mr. Miller indicated that DHS was contacted on this and advised PSTA not to release the applications and stated he would look into providing Sun Beam Times with the email communication to prove that such a conversation occurred at all.
Editorial comment: PSTA is clearly abusing Federal anti-terrorism grants to further its own purposes of promoting the Greenlight Pinellas 14% sales tax hike to build a train from St. Petersburg to Clearwater and create the county with the highest sales tax in the state. The grants are designed to ensure the public knows how to spot suspicious packages that may be bombs that could threaten their lives and the lives of others. The television ads created by PSTA merely mention the words “secure” and “safe” rarely or once per ad to give them the most tacit link to the grant, but their main goal is self-promotion. The PSTA knew that the grants were designed for a more robust anti-terrorism purpose as indicated by their phase I brochures describing suspicious packages. However they refused to offer these messages in the much more widely seen television commercials. The PSTA has made several errors, is likely breaking the law and may be subject to criminal penalties. They have 1) refused to effectively educate the public to prevent bombings of local buses as required 2) abused federal funds to promote their own services and the Greenlight Pinellas and 3) begun to engage in a cover-up by claiming the ads are appropriate and refusing to release their application for the grant. This abuse of taxpayer trust and their stewardship of tax dollars clearly and convincingly indicates that this agency cannot be trusted with a 300% tax revenue hike provided by the Greenlight Pinellas referendum. They cannot be trusted to properly spend the money on promised projects and cannot be trusted to tell the truth about anything. (They are also under FDOT investigation for spending $800,000 of taxpayer dollars for a political campaign effort). Voters should see this as further evidence of a web of corruption enveloping the PSTA and should reject the Greenlight referendum as a first step to cleaning up the agency. Pinellas citizens should then demand that all those involved in the PSTA abuse of Federal anti-terrorism grant be fired and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.