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Raleigh, N.C. — State lawmakers criticized the state Department of Public Safety on Monday for giving $5.3 million in Hurricane Matthew recovery aid to a nonprofit that helps the poor.
According to a new report by the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division, which acts as the state government watchdog agency, DPS awarded an emergency relief grant to the North Carolina Community Development Initiative. The money was used to repair 433 storm-damaged units of affordable housing and to develop new affordable housing in counties hit by the 2016 storm.
Mike Sprayberry, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, defended the grant to members of a legislative oversight committee.
“The decision to use the funds in the manner described was mine and [was] based on the pressing need to get disaster survivors into sustainable living accommodations,” Sprayberry said.
The award violated a state requirement that the money be used for immediate housing relief, but Sprayberry was he was unaware of the rules.
The report also said some of the grant money may have gone to for-profit developers linked to the nonprofit.
“I, too, like everybody else, appreciate what you do, but I think, with all due respect, you took liberties where liberties should not have been taken,” said Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie.
The legislative committee voted to send the report to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.
“I think we owe it to the people of North Carolina to be accountable for their money and particularly in a disaster,” said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, chairman of the committee.
But lawmakers from affected areas defended Sprayberry. They pointed out that Matthew – and Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael last year – devastated low-income housing, and they cautioned against harsh judgment of Sprayberry or the nonprofit.
“When a major disaster comes, given my experience in doing federal and state grants, you don’t have time to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ because you’re trying to make sure that people survive and that people have what they need,” said Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson.
The report is the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict between Republican lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration over Matthew recovery.
Lawmakers say disaster relief and recovery has been slow and poorly managed and want to continue investigating the issue. Administration officials note that disaster relief was moved to DPS from the state Department of Commerce in 2016, so few people had the needed expertise to manage the flow of recovery money.