TAMPA — A federal audit of Tampa's spending for the 2012 Republican National Convention raises questions about Mayor Bob Buckhorn's use of a sports-utility vehicle bought with federal funds.
The audit also questions the Tampa Police Department's decision to buy an armored vehicle when it already had two in its fleet.
Buckhorn spokeswoman Ali Glisson referred questions about the mayor's vehicle to Tampa police.
Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the city bought the 2012 Chevrolet Surburban to provide secure transportation for dignitaries during the convention and after.
The vehicle has been used to ferry Gov. Rick Scott during his visits to Tampa, McElroy said. This weekend, it will be used to drive a Syrian religious figure during a visit to the city, she said.
Tampa police provide a vehicle and driver for every Tampa mayor, McElroy said. Those rules will be changed to specify that the duty involves use of a police vehicle, she said.
The Suburban replaced an older GMC Yukon that had been seized in a drug arrest. That vehicle had 130,000 miles on it and needed to be replaced, McElroy said.
During the four-day convention, Buckhorn traveled between events in the SUV with his entourage, including his driver/bodyguard, Glisson, a personal assistant and journalists. A Tampa Tribune reporter spent part of one day of the convention traveling in the Suburban with the mayor.
Federal auditors said the Suburban, paid for with a $50 million security grant from the Department of Justice, was supposed to be used for “criminal justice purposes,” though auditors noted that term wasn't clearly defined.
“During our site visits, we noted that the mayor drove the vehicle himself,” the auditors reported Wednesday. “We recommend that the city ensure property purchased with grant funds is used only for criminal justice purposes.”
McElroy said the vehicle is typically parked at the mayor's house on Davis Islands after hours. His police driver comes to the mayor's house in the morning and drives him around in the SUV. There are times, however, when the mayor drives the Suburban to meet his driver at City Hall or uses it for after-hours work, such as visiting fire scenes, McElroy said.
Auditors also questioned the city's purchase of a new $273,000 armored vehicle for use during the convention and afterward.
The city spent $1.17 million on 47 vehicles, including 18 utility-terrain vehicles; 12 SUVs, three motorcycles and one medical-response vehicle. By comparison, auditors noted, St. Paul, Minn., bought 14 vehicles for a total $1.4 million for the 2008 RNC.
Auditors questioned whether the new armored vehicle was needed when the city already had two similar vehicles, the last one in working order.
Auditors noted that all the armored-vehicle purchase had been approved and the receipts were in order. They agreed that similar vehicles had been bought for previous conventions in other cities.
“However, we have doubts regarding the necessity to purchase this vehicle for the convention given the existence of another city-owned armored vehicle in working condition,” auditors wrote.
McElroy said the armored vehicle is used frequently when police serve search warrants that need a heavy law enforcement presence. It's also a high-water vehicle and was used May 2 to help drivers stranded by that day's downpours.
The vehicle was approved by federal officials, McElroy said, “so the audit discussion about the vehicle left us scratching our heads.”
The armored-vehicle purchase reflects the “broad discretion” allowed under the convention security grant program.
“If Congress chooses to continue providing funds for presidential nominating convention security, the development of clearer guidelines and restrictions may prevent this type of spending,” auditors wrote. “Future grant recipients need to place a greater emphasis on pursuing low-cost alternatives to purchase grant-funded property whenever those options are available.”
Altogether, Tampa spent $48.47 million of its $50 million federal grant on security for the RNC. About a quarter of that went for equipment. Nearly $14 million went to pay 6,743 local and out-of-town public safety officers, National Guard members and other people brought in to cover the convention.
Auditors said city officials correctly accounted for $35.5 million in grant drawdowns during the run-up to the convention. But they couldn't provide adequate documentation for $25,192 in overtime, salary and benefits related to staffing security for the convention, auditors said.
McElroy said the city has to document the overtime, but won't have to repay it.
Last August, Tampa repaid the government $903,923 from the federal grant because the city miscalculated its indirect costs.