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Investigators Find Ethical and Contracting Problems at $7 Billion Public Safety Communications Agency

FirstNet, which has $7 billion dollars in government backing, didn’t follow ethics guidelines or contracting rules, government investigators say.

John Roman Images/Shutterstock

A quasi-government group tasked with building a multi-billion dollar wireless network for police and firefighters failed to follow federal ethics and contracting guidelines, government investigators said in a new report Tuesday detailing the lapses.

An internal complaint about possible ethnical violations at FirstNet, a government-funded organization overseen by the Commerce Department, led government investigators to uncover improperly awarded contracts, lax oversight and several examples of board members failing to follow federal ethics guidelines.

“FirstNet must strengthen management of financial disclosures and monitoring of contracts,” the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded in the report.

Problems at FirstNet weren’t unexpected, given the group’s rocky start. But the report could hamper efforts by public safety officials to convince Congress to provide more money to build the network for police, firefighter and other local public safety agencies. The project is being funded by a wireless airwaves auction that has already raised $42 billion, far more than anyone had publicly predicted.

In response, a Commerce Department spokesman said in a statement that “as in any startup organization, we recognized that in the early stages of FirstNet there were administrative missteps and areas where documentation could have been improved,” adding that the department concurs with the investigators’ recommendations, “most of which are in place already.”

FirstNet echoed that response in a blog post Tuesday.

FirstNet was created by Congress in 2012 to build a national wireless broadband network for first responders. Police and fire departments have complained that they still aren’t able to communicate well during emergencies because they don’t have compatible equipment.

Overseen by the Commerce Department, FirstNet is governed by a 15-member board made up of government, industry and public safety officials. So far, this paid group has mostly been staffing up and making preparations to actually build the massive wireless network.

Congress gave FirstNet $7 billion from money raised during a wireless airwaves auction to help fund the new national network.

Government investigators found that FirstNet officials improperly awarded two contracts and failed to supervise contractors, which resulted in about $11 million in costs billed to the government without documentation to show why the expenditures were necessary.

Several board members also deliberately filed incomplete or incorrect public financial disclosure forms, investigators found. One board member reported spending no time on FirstNet business in an effort to avoid filing a public financial disclosure, the report said.

Another filed a form late and didn’t disclose he had “substantial assets” in a conflicting company even though Commerce Department lawyers had previously told him not to work on any matters involving the company. He only filed a corrected form after government investors demanded it, eight months later, according to the report.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Communications and Technology subcommittee, said Tuesday the report confirmed previous suspicions about problems at FirstNet and promised to hold more oversight hearings on the group next year.

Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who helped create FirstNet and is retiring soon, said in a statement he continues to trust that the group “is in good hands” and he is “confident that they will make sure to carefully abide” by the rules in the future.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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