BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Doug Wortham used a Defense Department giveaway program for law enforcement to stock his office with an assault rifle, a handgun and a Humvee — even though the people in his custody are in no condition to put up a fight.
Wortham is the Sharp County, Arkansas, coroner. He says the Humvee helps him navigate the rugged terrain of the Ozarks foothills, 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.
His office isn’t the only government agency with limited policing powers and a questionable need for high-powered weaponry to take advantage of the program. While most of the surplus weapons go to municipal police departments and county sheriffs, an Associated Press review shows that a diverse array of other state and local agencies also have been scooping up guns and other tactical equipment no longer needed by the military.
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 Cullman County, Alabama; a harbormaster in Dartmouth, Massachusetts; and the California Assembly’s Sergeant-at-Arms.
The Pentagon’s 1033 Program has been controversial; the White House ordered a review of it and similar programs in August after a deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, led to clashes between protesters and officers decked out in combat gear.
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.
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. “I have never carried a weapon in my 20 years on the job.”
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.
“We have looked at it as saving this town big money,” he said. “We’re not out there in tanks. We’re not dressing in battle uniform-type stuff.”
The Arkansas Tobacco Control agency obtained five 12-gauge shotguns for its agents, who help regulate tobacco retailers and wholesalers.
“A lot of the convenience store owners who are involved in (tobacco) smuggling are also on the terrorist watch list, have connections to organized crime, etc.,” said Roland Darrow, an agency attorney. Darrow said his agency’s law-enforcement officers have arrested at least one person whose name was on Homeland Security’s terrorist watch list, but he declined to provide details, saying the information was classified.
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.
Similarly, Kansas State Gaming Agency enforcement director Jamie Nickoley said its 10 surplus M-16 rifles are “just another tool” for its law-enforcement agents, who also have agency-issued handguns.
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 and recently defeated a primary challenger who stars on a reality TV show about the Ozarks, denies any wrongdoing.
“This has been a political thing from the word go,” he said.