St. Petersburg-area transit authority used terrorism funds on promotional ads

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

BRAD MILLER: Chief executive officer of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A St. Petersburg-area public transit authority has returned $354,000 in federal grant money to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The money was supposed to be used to protect transportation infrastructure and the traveling public from “acts of terrorism.”

Instead, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority paid for television and radio promotions that lauded the benefits of using the local public transit system. The ads further coincided with a $1.7 billion proposed light rail plan, part of the Pinellas Greenlight project, that depends on a voter-approved sales tax increase in November.

In an Aug. 1 email from PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller to Pinellas County Commission chairman Kenneth T. Welch and the PSTA board, Miller blamed DHS and attributed the misspent funding to a lack of clarity regarding security grant requirements.

“DHS provided no guidance because they don’t have any,” he said.

In April, Watchdog.org reported PSTA was using DHS funding for promotional ads that included the Pinellas Greenlight logo.

Miller said he volunteered to return the $354,000 after DHS officials threatened last week to make PSTA return it.

“It’s not a proactive decision, it’s defensive,” Barb Haselden, founder of No Tax for Tracks, told Watchdog.org. No Tax for Tracks opposes the billion dollar effort to build a 24-mile light rail train to connect St. Petersburg to Clearwater.

Along with other constituents, Haselden voiced her concerns about the PSTA ads to newly elected Republican congressman David Jolly. He then met with DHS officials and expressed those concerns.

“This is about making sure tax dollars are being used correctly. I applaud the decision by PSTA to remove any question of controversy regarding the use of taxpayer money,” Jolly said in a emailed statement to Watchdog.org.

The federal Transit Security Grant Program is intended to “strengthen the nation’s critical infrastructure against risks associated with potential terrorist attacks,” according to the Transportation Security Administration’s website.

Here’s an example of a “PSTA Cares” ad:

Miller said in his email he stands by the ads: “I’m sorry this occurred but we know we made the right decision,” he concluded.

Simply returning the money doesn’t erase what happened, Haselden said.

“The grant money was spent,” she said. “The money PSTA is repaying comes from the PSTA.”

According to Miller, a budgetary transfer from more than $2 million worth of “budget efficiency savings” will reimburse DHS for the completed ads.

Watchdog.org contacted PSTA for comment, but was told media inquiries must be forwarded to the public relations firm Cate Communications. A request for comment there wasn’t returned.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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