When they left Orofino on Friday, federal agents wearing bulletproof vests took with them three vehicles full of seized local government documents.
They left behind anger and confusion.
“An audit is one thing. A stormtrooper search is another,” said Orofino Mayor Roy Clay.
However, the raid of the Clearwater County Flood Control Command Center has not prompted howls of outrage from Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, or others normally quick to criticize federal heavy-handedness.
That’s because a grand jury investigation is under way, apparently into county handling of money it received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Such investigations are secret, so even Chenoweth can’t find out what’s going on.
“They’re just not releasing any information to us,” Chenoweth spokesman Chad Hyslop said Monday.
“Everything that we’re hearing is rumor,” said Mike Tracy on behalf of his boss, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig. “We’ll find out more when the affidavits are unsealed.”
Eight or nine county employees have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in Boise on Aug. 17, according to Clearwater County Commissioner Bud Bonner.
The first to get a subpoena, he said, was Kelley Worthington, office manager at the command center. It was delivered to her home. That was before she was confronted at 7:30 a.m. Friday by five FEMA agents in plain clothes and bulletproof vests.
They were accompanied by two Idaho State Police officers. They had a search warrant seeking documents “that support disbursement for disaster-related expenditures.”
Worthington, who would not comment on the incident, reportedly locked the doors and ran to the county attorney’s office for advice.
She was told to give the searchers what they wanted.
“They were fishing,” said Bonner, who was among those who watched as the agents pried open crates of documents. They loaded up two vans and a sport-utility vehicle.
Some employees were crying, Bonner said. “I hate to see good people treated that way, honest people who work hard for very little pay.”
All FEMA had to do was ask in order to get any records it wanted, Bonner said.
The command center is a joint city-county operation set up during disastrous flooding in February 1996.
Repairs within Orofino aren’t complete, but Mayor Clay said the city has had no significant problems getting FEMA reimbursement for flood-related road and bridge reconstruction.
“They’ve done a lot of good,” he said.
Things haven’t gone as smoothly for the county, which was suffering economically even before it shelled out $6 million trying to put its road system back together. FEMA hasn’t reimbursed $1.1. million of that, questioning the county’s requests for some major projects.
“We went out and did it, and they don’t approve of the manner in which it was done,” said county commission chairman Earl Pickett. “We’re very strapped for cash.”
County officials said they repeatedly asked for a handbook detailing which rules they were to follow. They said they never got one. Now, they’re appealing FEMA’s decision not to pay up.
No one from the federal agency was available Monday for comment.
The Idaho Bureau of Disaster Services, which acts as an intermediary between local governments and FEMA, referred calls to the U.S. Attorney’s office. A spokesman there would not confirm the existence of an investigation.
Pickett said he doesn’t know if there’s any relationship between the investigation and the county’s insistence that the federal government owes its taxpayers more money.
The three county commissioners ultimately are responsible for seeing that federal disaster relief money is legally spent. They have not been subpoenaed to testify.
“I’m still sitting here in shock, wondering why this happened to us,” Pickett said Monday. “We have nothing to hide. We don’t want to give them the impression we have anything to hide.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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