In the name of national security: Budget release for RNC security contained numerous, non-obvious redactions
Both the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press ran stories August 6 on the city of St. Paul’s summary of how it will spend the $50 million in federal dollars allocated for security at the Republican National Convention. But those stories fail to note an important caveat: The publicly released budget has been redacted by the Department of Justice, apparently with the aim of camouflaging the nature of some expenditures.
St. Paul police media rep Tom Walsh told me as much this afternoon when I phoned him to ask him about certain line items in the three-page document. Walsh was forthcoming in response to some of my questions, such as what the $1 million allocation for “private security personnel” represented (event security inside the arena) and what was behind the $100,00+ line for “displacement costs” (probably, says Walsh, reimbursement of parking costs for ramps and surface lots that the public will not be able to use during the convention).
I went on to ask Walsh about a pair of budget allocations that struck me as redundant. There were identical $750,000 line items for “SPPD/Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office” and “Minneapolis Police Department/Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office” in addition to the seemingly encompassing budget lines for SPPD personnel costs and for “Police Officers – Other Jurisdictions.”
When I asked why, Walsh had this to say: “Keep in mind that this budget was redacted by the DoJ, so there are some things that are not [on it]. First of all, I don’t know everything that was in play, but the things that are redacted were redacted by the DoJ for a reason. We’re not going to talk about them.”
So does this mean those two lines, totaling a not-paltry $1.5 million, were paying for something other than indicated? “We sent the DoJ a detailed line-item budget,” he said. “This is what they sent back, and this is what we can talk about. We can’t talk about anything beyond it.”
He referred back to that same answer when I asked about the $3 million in total “venue” costs listed separately under Contracts and Equipment, and likewise when I asked about the $250,000 allotment for “Ramsey County Courthouse & other surrounding areas.”
Walsh declined to say any more about the DoJ’s editing of the budget, adding only that “I can tell you that after the event, this budget will be public. You can break it down line by line. But until DoJ gives us permission to do that, we can’t do it.”
Since the publicly released version of the budget totals $50 million on the button, the concealment of certain budget items was likely accomplished by re-labeling certain lines or by deleting lines and rolling the associated costs into other lines. In any event, what this means is that aspects of how the $50 million in taxpayer funding for convention security will be spent remain entirely opaque. It’s pointless to speculate on how large a share of the total budget is going to non-disclosed purposes, but the handful of items I expressly asked about total $4.75 million, or nearly 10 percent of the whole.
Regardless of whether you think this concealment is justified on grounds of national security, it certainly bears noting. It would have been one thing to bundle a group of costs together and say that for security reasons, we’re not going to tell you where this money is being spent. Then at least we’d have a reliable accounting of most cost elements in a rather lavish expenditure of public dollars.
What the DoJ apparently did instead was to mix and match real and fictitious budget lines. This makes the document as a whole fairly useless to anyone who lacks a decoder ring or special pair of glasses to separate the two. With every appearance of at least relative openness, the always-unhelpful folks at the Bush administration Department of Justice have told us very little.
Which begs a question: Why undertake the pretense of releasing a detailed budget if it is not really a detailed budget?