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Federal funds for port safety are said to be mismanaged

WASHINGTON -- The Homeland Security Department has allowed federal grants for improving security at America's ports to be spent on low priority problems rather than the most serious vulnerabilities, the agency's outgoing watchdog said.

In a draft report to be released next month, the department's inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin, said port security spending should be governed by the most pressing priorities rather than local politics.

Ervin said the department's port security grant program needs better oversight to make sure projects that get money meet security goals, attributing the problems to inadequate staffing and poor coordination,

"The DHS does not have a strong grant evaluation process in place by which to address post-award administration issues, including measuring progress in accomplishing DHS' grant objectives," Ervin said in a recent summary of the report.

The summary was contained in another report from Ervin's office, "Major Management Challenges Facing the Department of Homeland Security," which was posted on the department's website.

The White House rebuffed criticism yesterday that the department had mismanaged federal grants for improving US port security. Trent Duffy, the White House deputy press secretary, said the department was doing an "exceptional job protecting the American people."

But Duffy acknowledged that some coordination problems remain. "Obviously, there are organizational challenges when you undertake the biggest government reform since the Pentagon was created, and we're working on that," Duffy told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is spending the holidays

The grant program has been criticized in the past for being too cumbersome and for awarding money to projects of questionable use. To make his point, Ervin cited the report of the Sept. 11 Commission, which said homeland security spending should not be used as a "pork barrel" for politicians to send money to their districts.

The report is one of the last submitted by Ervin, who earned a reputation as a blunt critic of the department before leaving the job earlier this month.

Ervin won a recess appointment to the position in December 2003, but the Senate failed to confirm him and the White House appeared unlikely to nominate him again.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department had streamlined its grant processes earlier this year.

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