WASHINGTON — Despite recording the nation’s third highest fatality rate from alcohol-related vehicle crashes, Mississippi has improperly diverted millions of federal highway grant dollars designated for addressing the problem, the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general has found.
In an audit issued last week, the inspector general harshly criticized the state’s transportation department, estimating that of $45 million that was paid to Mississippi from fiscal 2007 to 2010 for highway safety, more than $7 million was improperly channeled to state and local law enforcement agencies for use in general enforcement, such as curbing speeding or seat-belt violations.
It said that 93 of 127 state and local police officers whose federally funded activities were reviewed did not issue any citations for driving while intoxicated (DUI) during the period analyzed.
The audit was the latest round in a six-year battle between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, known as the NHTSA, and Mississippi officials over what the agency described as the state’s “weak financial management controls and poor conformance with grant requirements,” the audit found.
In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration designated Mississippi as the nation’s only “high-risk grantee” because of its lax compliance with the federal grant conditions.
While NHTSA officials requested the audit, auditors also criticized the agency itself for weak oversight of Mississippi’s handling of federal highway safety dollars.
Mississippi has the highest rate of vehicle fatalities in the nation, in addition to its soaring incidence of alcohol-related traffic deaths, NHTSA said.
Because it is one of 11 states that have yet to pass laws barring open containers in vehicles, federal law requires that 3 percent of its federal-aid highway construction funds be shifted to highway safety programs that create countermeasures to alcohol-impaired driving or focus on enforcement of drinking and driving laws or “hazard elimination activities.”
As a result, in addition to receiving $20.8 million in highway safety money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the four-year audit period, the state transferred $36.3 million in federal highway construction funds to programs aimed at curbing drunken driving.
Auditors examined a statistical sample of $10.4 million of $45.3 million reimbursed to the state during the four-year span and identified $102,218 in improper payments.
Based on statistical projection, the report said, the Mississippi Office of Highway Safety claimed about $7.1 million in reimbursements for ineligible expenditures over the four years.
For example, the report said, only 147, or 5 percent, of the 2,926 citations that 127 officers issued were for DUI violations.
Because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued no standard or target for how many DUI citations an officer should issue, the auditors set a baseline of one citation for every two eight-hour work shifts, a standard that NHTSA officials deemed reasonable.
It said that only 21 of the 127 officers met that threshold. During a four-week period, one officer issued 26 DUI citations, while another issued none, the auditors reported.
Following completion of the audit, the report said, NHTSA informed auditors that the state Office of Highway Safety had taken actions to correct weaknesses in its internal controls, including hiring a new finance manager and agreeing to add an auditor to its staff this year.