Homeland security and public education do not seemingly share the same bed. Yet according to lobbying reports acquired from opensecrets.org, SUNY has spent an undisclosed amount of money lobbying for various Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security appropriations.

SUNY claims all efforts are related to “education, research, and training programs.”

The lobbying reports contain addendums for vague “lobbying issue areas,” like “Energy and Water” and “Agriculture.” Along with these benignities are the terms “Defense” and “Homeland Security,” appearing on five lobbying reports, including one from 2010 that totals $480,000 in lobbying expenses.

“SUNY could be pushing specific projects and applications related to homeland security and defense,” said Les Paldy, a distinguished service professor in the Department of Technology and Society here at Stony Brook University.

SUNY’s Evasive Lobby

Though SUNY’s lobbying expenses are miniscule compared to its overall $11 billion budget, (SUNY is America’s largest public university system), SUNY spent approximately $1.9 million on lobbying in 2010, more than any other university system in the nation. Dr. John Marburger, who served as president of Stony Brook from 1980 to 1994 and presidential science advisor to George W. Bush, believes that the money spent on lobbying executive branches like the Department of Defense and Homeland Security is ultimately a waste.

“The overwhelming majority of money we get for federal research comes from the result of peer-reviewed competitive research proposals,” Marburger said. “There are two negative aspects of lobbying for earmarks. It takes money out of competitive programs like Stony Brook and it makes the executive branch agencies angry. Earmarking is a practice that agencies don’t like because it disrupts their budgets.”

Earmarking is a common legislative practice in which funds of a proposed bill are directed to specific projects that might or might not be relevant to the overall bill. Research universities like Stony Brook compete for grants (in which the outcome of research is unclear) and contracts (specific tasks that need to be executed) from the federal government routinely. The Department of Defense, with its swelling three quarters of a trillion dollar budget, and the Department of Homeland Security are two major providers of research money for antiterrorism, security, and engineering initiatives.

Officials at Stony Brook and SUNY were laconic and evasive when pressed for specific details about SUNY’s lobbying activity in those areas.

“Right now our primary federal focus is restoration of the proposed cuts to Pell grants,” said Vanessa Herman, Assistant Director for Governmental Relations and higher education at Stony Brook. Herman, a lobbyist for SUNY who often travels to Washington, is a listed lobbyist in four of the five lobbying reports obtained from opensecrets.org that mention homeland security and/or defense. Herman refused to comment further about what the specific education, research, and training programs related to homeland security and defense actually entail.

Morgan Hooks of the SUNY Office of Communications refused to elaborate as well, asking to see one of the lobbying reports via e-mail before declining to comment on how lobbying efforts for the Department of Defense and Homeland Security are linked to educational initiatives.

And David K. Belsky, press officer and director of new media at SUNY, initially offered to comment on this story. However, after being asked how much of the $1.7 million is spent on lobbying initiatives related to the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, what the actual education, research, and training programs are, and why SUNY would be lobbying for bills like The Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Act (H.R. 2868). Belsky did not respond to any of our question. Instead, he referred us back to Hooks, who was not willing to answer any questions or disclose any information related to the lobbying reports.

Inside the Reports

The reports can, to an extent, speak for themselves: one lobbying report filed in 2009 by Michael Trunzo, SUNY Vice Chancellor for Governmental Relations, includes a “lobbying activity” for the aforementioned Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Act (H.R. 2868). Herman is the only listed lobbyist for SUNY on that bill.

The goals of the bill, which never became law, were to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to enhance security and protect against acts of terrorism against chemical facilities. It also sought to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act in order to bolster the security of public water systems and amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to strengthen the security of wastewater treatment works.

“I wouldn’t think universities would lobby for a bill like that [H.R. 2868] unless it had a provision in it that would either exempt universities from a requirement or amend existing laws that would decrease bureaucracy in some way,” Marburger said. In a closer examination of the bill’s language, subtle and somewhat nebulous links can be drawn between its non-academic goals and higher education. One section of the bill stipulates that it will “establish, as appropriate…procedures for security vulnerability assessments and site security plans for covered chemical facilities that are also academic laboratories.” Academic laboratories are later defined in the bill as facilities owned by an institution of higher education where relatively small quantities of chemicals are used for teaching, research, and diagnostic purposes, and are typically handled by one person.

In another report filed in 2009, SUNY lobbied for “authorizations” and “appropriations” related to the bluntly-named National Center for Security and Preparedness. NCSP is affiliated with the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany. Established in 2007, NCSP’s stated mission is to support America’s efforts to be “secure from acts of terrorism and to be prepared to respond to incidents of high consequence and disasters through research, education, training, and technical assistance.” NCSP has been involved in developing training courses for the New York State Office of Homeland Security. NCSP’s official website does not mention any current projects from either 2010 or 2011.

Syracuse-based lobbyist Michael Brower was paid nearly $17,000 in 2010 to lobby for  SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He advanced the lobbying issue “Source Sentinel-detection of biologics in water for national defense.” Source Sentinel LLC is a company that provides monitoring awareness for water and wastewater contaminants. “Biologics” is a general term that can refer to vaccines, blood components, allergenics, gene therapy, tissues, and recombinant and therapeutic proteins. These are technologically-produced and could theoretically be employed as biological weapons.

It is still unclear if the money for these lobbying efforts is drawn from actual state money or a fund established by the SUNY Research Foundation (a private non-profit group that supports SUNY research). Marburger would not be pleased if the money was siphoned from public funds.

“I don’t think it’s a wise investment,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t think it helps Stony Brook much. When I was president, I opposed earmarks.”