Newly released documents show that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s northern Florida office spent nearly half its public corruption budget in the first three months of fiscal year 2011 in an effort to track down abuses of federal stimulus money.
An advertising campaign to root out the corruption was initially discussed in a document distributed among FBI officials in February, 2010, a year after the federal expenditure of between $787 billion and $831 billion was authorized by President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Among the options were roadside billboards in the Tallahassee area or an ad campaign in the print editions of the Tallahassee newspaper at a cost of around $11,500. The document noted a possibility that “an advertising campaign targeting public corruption exclusively may be controversial.”
In an email dated Jan. 24, 2011, despite the waning public corruption budget, officials in the northern Florida office made the decision to move ahead with the purchase of newspaper ads and to establish an anonymous tip line.
The regional office’s chiefs were concerned that spending on a media campaign would take away from other funds to chase corruption for the rest of the year. They hoped they could get extra money if they exceeded their budget.
In an email that was part of the April 29 records disclosure, the leaders pondered what would happen if the office spent all its fund. “Will [criminal investigative division] provide an enhancement?” they asked.
A press statement released Feb. 8, 2011, announced the tip line. The bureau also bought an ad on the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat.
The ad read: "Who's representing you?" with a "pay-to-play" logo with a slash through it. "Dishonest government officials aren't just wasting your tax dollars," the ad copy said. "They're betraying your trust. Report public corruption to the FBI."
The Tallahassee newspaper ran a story on the FBI’s public corruption outreach in June, 2011, which cited the bureau’s success in tackling public corruption across the U.S. and noted that Tallahassee was the focus of the new crackdown.
Also among the recently released information was a note to all supervisory FBI agents in the Jacksonville office, stating that the bureau was pressing for information regarding “public corruption threats” connected to the construction projects in the city of Jacksonville, as well as “bribery, kickbacks, extortion and theft committed by elected and appointed public officials at local and county government,” and corruption among law enforcement.
But the return on the investment in the effort was meager.
In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave Florida a D-minus grade in policing public corruption.
The hotline and an email address dedicated to tips received 96 calls between its launch in February 2011 and January 2014, according to a data sheet included in the release of information. The calls came from all over Florida as well as other states, including Michigan, West Virginia, Texas, Alaska and Kansas.
The calls included tips regarding drug sales in Pennsylvania, a complaint of a loud fraternity in Valdosta, Ga., and one tipster who was having problems with Pay Pal.
But there were also some tips that warranted follow-up, including concern of embezzlement at Jacksonville’s Port Authority and allegations of corruption in the state attorney’s office. Numerous callers left messages on the tip line, but could not be reached by the FBI for a followup.
In the past year, the FBI has announced charges against individuals for fraud schemes and child pornography. It also investigated alleged shady construction projects in the Leon County School District in northern Florida, although no charges were ever filed.
But the money never netted a bust related to the economic stimulus fund, said Donald Stone, a self-described muckraker and factory worker in Jensen Beach, Florida, who had requested the information.
“I was shocked I got the documents at all,” said Stone, who has filed FOIA requests with the federal government for more two decades.
He obtained them through the website MuckRock, which helps the public gain access to public records.
A FBI spokeswoman said: “While we can’t speak specifically to a case, some things take a while to develop.”