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Even a coroner gets surplus US military guns

October 6, 2014

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (AP) — A coroner’s office and a state livestock board are among an array of government agencies with limited policing powers that have been scooping up surplus guns and other tactical equipment under a controversial Defense Department giveaway program that has prompted a White House review.

Most of the excess weapons go to municipal police departments and county sheriffs, but an Associated Press reviews shows that state and local agencies with a questionable need for high-powered weaponry have also taken advantage of the Pentagon’s 1033 program.

The program drew national attention after clashes erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, between officers decked out in combat gear and protesters angry about the police shooting death of an unarmed black man. The White House ordered a review of 1033 and similar programs in August.

Under the 1033 program, thousands of law-enforcement agencies have acquired hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and other military castoffs. Among them were dozens of fire departments, district attorneys, prisons, parks departments and wildlife agencies that were eligible to join the program because they have officers or investigators with arrest powers.

One of the beneficiaries is Doug Wortham, the Sharp County, Arkansas county coroner who used the program to stock his office with an assault rifle, a handgun and a Humvee. He says the Humvee helps him navigate the rugged terrain of the foothills of the Ozarks Mountains, but he struggled to explain why he needs the surplus military weapons he acquired more than two years ago.

“I just wanted to protect myself,” he said.

Military-grade weapons have gone to government agencies that enforce gaming laws at Kansas tribal casinos and weigh 18-wheelers in Mississippi, to the Wyoming Livestock Board and the Cumberland County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Other military surplus items have been bestowed on an animal control department in Alabama and a harbormaster in Massachusetts.

Guns, armored vehicles and aircraft only account for a fraction of the equipment up for grabs. Several agencies surveyed by the AP said they never asked for any weapons and only enrolled in the program to get free office equipment and other common items that wouldn’t be deployed on any battlefield.

The agencies receiving firearms are difficult to pinpoint because the federal agency overseeing the program only releases county-level data on weapons transfers, citing security concerns. But some participating agencies — or state officials who coordinate the program — were willing to disclose their inventories.

Wortham was qualified to enroll in the 1033 Program because Arkansas coroners have arrest powers. Elected to his first term as coroner in 2010, he obtained a .45-caliber pistol and an M-16 rifle in 2012 after getting a Humvee the previous year. He said he is trying to arrange for a local police department to take the two weapons.

State program officials said they couldn’t find Wortham’s written justification for requesting the weapons. An official from the federal office that oversees the program approved both transactions.

“What does a coroner need a big gun for?” asked Marshall County, Illinois, coroner Davey Lenz, who used the program to obtain body bags.

Steve Melo, the harbormaster in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, said he hasn’t received any weapons but acquired a Humvee for driving in marshy areas and a night-vision scope to spot boaters in the dark. The Humvee was stripped of weapon holders and the scope isn’t attached to a gun, he said.

The Wyoming Livestock Board’s law-enforcement unit issues Glock-made handguns to its officers, who investigate cattle thefts and other industry-related crimes. But the board also obtained seven .45-caliber handguns from the military surplus program roughly three years ago.

“I guess primarily because I can’t stand Glocks,” said senior investigator Kim Clark.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation, which has an office that enforces laws governing commercial vehicles, obtained seven M-14 rifles through the program.

“We don’t actually shoot them or anything. They’re basically used as props during our ceremonies,” said department spokesman Kenny Foote.

The 1033 Program isn’t the only source of surplus property for law-enforcement agencies. They also can purchase equipment at discounted prices through the separate 1122 Program, which is overseen by the Army. State and local government agencies of all stripes can acquire other types of non-military surplus property through a program overseen by the U.S. General Services Administration.

Wortham’s office also obtained property through the GSA-run program but lost its privileges last year after state officials learned of concerns about some of its acquisitions, including a kayak, according to Tina Owens, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.

“Why would a coroner’s office need a kayak?” Owens asked.

Owens’ department referred the matter last year to the GSA inspector general’s office, which is investigating. Neither agency would elaborate.

Wortham, who is running for re-election, denies any wrongdoing.

“This has been a political thing from the word go,” he said.

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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org

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