Illinois cracking down on police departments acquiring millions in military surplus

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - It’s a program designed to help local law enforcement agencies by giving them access to surplus military equipment.

But FOX 32 has learned the state of Illinois is cracking down after it found some tiny police departments acquiring millions of dollars in military surplus.

It’s the same program Fox Lake police lieutenant Joseph Gliniewicz used illegally to acquire military supplies for his Police Explorers program.

Welcome to Athens, Illinois: population is 2,000 people.

It's literally a one stoplight town about 15 miles north of Springfield with a couple of bars, a café and a building that once hosted a young Abraham Lincoln.

And on the outskirts of town, you find a long row of used military equipment now parked in the Athens department of public works.

FOX 32: How much money do you think this program has saved your community?

"It's a considerable amount. I couldn't put a dollar amount on it right now but it's considerable,” said Athens Police Chief Tim Becker.

Becker showed FOX 32 some of the equipment he's secured through the "law enforcement support office"- or LESO - a program that allows local law enforcement agencies to acquire used or surplus military supplies from the federal department of defense.

According to records obtained by FOX 32, the four-man Athens Police Department has acquired 326 pieces of military equipment valued at nearly $1.8 million in just the past three years, including five lawn mowers, a road striper, road grader, two bobcats, mini tractor, four generators, four forklifts, loader tractor, five bulldozers, street sweeper, bucket truck and a dump truck.

FOX 32: There are some people who will see this and say for a small town with a small police force this is way too much equipment. Is this an abuse of this program?

"Absolutely not. This is equipment that was bought and paid for with taxpayer money to the federal government. And these taxpayers in this community should have an opportunity to have it come back and benefit their community,” Becker said.

Athens is hardly alone. FOX 32 examined the state database and found a number of small Illinois towns acquiring millions of dollars in military surplus.

Like Golconda, which is a town of 640 people on the Ohio River, whose police department has obtained $691,000 in military surplus, including trucks and a $233,000 road grader.

And Metropolis, which has a population of 6400 people, obtained equipment valued at more than $3 million or more than $500 for every resident in town.

FOX 32: What is the problem you saw when you came in?

"Well you have agencies that have excessive or inappropriate amounts of property versus their agency size,” said Ashley Noblett.

Noblet is deputy director of the state agency that oversees the LESO program in Illinois. She says under previous administrations, there was little oversight or adherence to the rules, which is why they've begun cracking down and asking questions.

“How big is the department? What do they already have? Do they need it? Is it for law enforcement purpose only?" Noblett said.

Problems in the program first came to light last fall, when investigators found disgraced Fox Lake police lieutenant Joseph Gliniewicz had unlawfully used LESO to acquire thousands of pieces of military surplus for his Police Explorers post.

While some of it's in bad shape, FOX 32 was also surprised to find some of the equipment the military is giving away has hardly been used.

And FOX 32 has learned the state is investigating whether some communities have intentionally over-ordered equipment so that it can later be sold for profit, and then the money used for other municipal purposes.

FOX 32: They can't acquire stuff with the idea they're going to sell it?

"That is correct. That is not the LESO program's intended purpose,” Noblett said.

The Athens police chief told FOX 32 they have sold surplus military equipment after keeping it a year, which is required under the program. They’ve used the proceeds to pay for three brand new squad cars and other new equipment.