WASHINGTON – A top federal investigator is defending his agency’s critical audit of Erie County’s use of disaster aid following the surprise snowstorm of October 2006, saying that the county hasn’t been able to prove that it spent that money properly.

D. Michael Beard, the assistant inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security who signed off on the audit, renewed his criticism of the county in an interview with The Buffalo News, saying the county’s shoddy contracting and record-keeping prompted his agency’s call for the county to return $48.5 million in federal disaster aid.

“The county can’t show us anything they actually did,” Beard said.

The audit focused its criticism on the county’s insistence that local contractors be used to clean up the downed trees and debris left behind by the heavy, wet snow.

Local officials, from past and present administrations and both political parties, have taken issue with that criticism, citing two federal laws that allow the county to give preference to contractors from the region.

In The News interview, Beard conceded that the law allows the county to favor local contractors, but he said the problems auditors found went far beyond that.

“They can’t prove anything,” said Beard, regarding Erie County officials’ decisions on contractors following the 2006 storm. “They didn’t leave a paper trail we could audit.”

That being the case, there’s no way of knowing if the county complied with federal regulations that require preferences to be given to minority contractors and that bidding be competitive, Beard said.

Yes, localities can rely on local contractors.

“You still have to bid the contracts, consider minority firms, make sure the pricing was reasonable,” he said.

Beard made his comments after The News reported on the audit and local officials, including County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, ridiculed it as a sloppy piece of work that ignored the laws allowing the county to favor local contractors.

Told of Beard’s comments, Peter Anderson, spokesman for Poloncarz, said: “That was not something we knew about. That was not something in the audit that was sent to us.”

Joel A. Giambra, who was county executive at the time of the storm, was equally perplexed.

“I don’t know what this fellow’s talking about,” Giambra said. “Did he say this was in the audit?”

Giambra also lashed out at the allegation that the county’s records of how it spent the disaster aid are incomplete.

“They’re not in my basement,” he said of the records. “I didn’t do the procurement. It wasn’t my job.”

The inspector general’s audit has caused concern in Erie County because if the county is forced to repay the federal disaster aid, it would severely deplete its emergency fund.

That being the case, Sen. Charles E. Schumer is asking W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to meet with him and Poloncarz in the senator’s office to discuss the matter.

“After the storm, Erie County officials worked in good faith with FEMA to respond to the crisis, and it makes no sense whatsoever to hammer them now for doing the right thing responding to the storm,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican who succeeded Giambra as county executive, agreed.

“You never do full competitive bidding in an emergency situation,” said Collins, noting that the county instead maintained a bid book that included the standard prices contractors charged in such situations.

“You can’t have 45 days of bidding to clear the roads,” he said.

Collins said he was surprised to hear Beard’s take on the audit, as was Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

“Doesn’t it sound like he’s moving the goalposts a little bit?” Higgins said.