Jacksonville City Attorney Cindy Laquidara blasted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in an accusatory letter dated April 15, in which she questioned the motives behind the DHS decision to monitor how the city spends a multimillion-dollar grant to ensure that it is free of racial prejudice. 

DHS announced in a March 19 letter that it monitor a $5.9 million SAFER grant it awarded to Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department in January to ensure that it complies with civil rights law. The grant will allow JFRD to hire as many as 67 new firefighters, When the grant was announced, Mayor Alvin Brown said it would help make up for the 91 vacant positions left unfilled in fire department because of budget cuts during the recession.

With the grant under review and DHS demanding documents, Laquidara accused the feds of using the review to strongarm the city just as it enters settlement hearings, on April 23, in six federal lawsuits pending over the hiring and promotions of African-Americans in the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD). The Justice Department is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits.

Laquidara described the review an “attempt of the United States to obtain privileged documents,” and she characterized the reasons DHS gave for the review in its March 19 letter as “baseless.”

In that letter, DHS told the city that its grant application left out required critical information. The city failed to report the discrimination lawsuits JFRD faces or any findings of discrimination in the fire department. Although the letter didn’t say the grant was in jeopardy, it’s logical to think it and any other money JFRD has received from DHS might be rescinded if the review documents civil rights violations. Calls for comment from DHS have not been returned.

Since December 2011, the letter explained, DHS has require that any grant application include information about whether, “during the past three years, the recipient has been accused of discrimination on the grounds of race, color, [or] national origin.” If so, “the recipient must provide a list of all such proceedings, pending or completed.”

Laquidara, however, argued that wasn’t the case at all. She said the application didn’t request information on pending litigation. She also said the city isn’t required to report allegations of discrimination in SAFER grant applications. And she says federal law prohibits disclosing the specific type of hiring and promotion allegations JFRD is accused of if those allegations don’t turn into federal lawsuits. 

The problem with Laquidara’s argument is that the federal lawsuits are about hiring and promotions. While her response explains why the city won’t provide some documents to DHS concerning discrimination complaints, it doesn’t say why that information was not included on the application. And in fact DHS references the very word “pending” in the reporting requirements it cited, which seems undercut Laquidara’s argument. (The city attorney claims the application she reviewed didn’t have that reporting requirement listed.)

Lurking in the letter Megan Mack of the DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties sent to the city is a potentially bigger problem. DHS’s civil rights compliance review will only cover how the SAFER grant is spent. It will make sure it’s spent equitably. A slap on the wrist. More important, though, Mack also questions whether the city has violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in grants that DHS awarded to the JFRD in the past, specifically in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013. That’s a long time — and no doubt a lot of money. In addition to the $5.9 SAFER grant, the DHS has awarded another $4.8 million to JFRD since 2011. Title VI requires that federal money be spent fairly, and in a manner free of racial discrimination.

If the federal government determines a grant recipient has violated Title VI, it can terminate the grant or the U.S. Department of Justice may take legal action. For years, African-Americans in Jacksonville have said the federal government should review all federal money awarded to the city for just this reason.

In her response to DHS, Laquidara scoffed at the Title VI allegations. She complained that Mack used a 1995 lawsuit in which a court ultimately ruled the city did not discriminate in promotions.

 Although Mack quoted the court in that case as saying the city “has a history of discrimination against African-Americans in the Fire Department,“ Laquidara argued that that was merely a statement, not a finding of any legal significance. “It was simply an observation that the City, like almost every city in the United States, had discriminated against minorities in the past,” Laquidara wrote.

Ohio attorneys Dennis Thompson and Christy Bishop represent plaintiffs in four of the federal lawsuits against the city. They say that Laquidara seems to find it difficult to see racial discrimination anywhere. “I don’t know if she fails to understand, or just completely discounts it,” says Thompson.

And that attitude doesn’t move the city forward.

“This is social impact litigation,” Thompson says. “It’s not so much right or wrong, win or loss. It’s a way of solving a problem.”