When the Army's infectious diseases center at Fort Detrick decided a decade ago that it needed more contract workers to supplement military and civilian staff in its labs, it turned to companies that specialized in such work.
Then last year, those workers were surprised when officials at the Frederick base decided to shift the management of all their contracts to an Alaska Native Corporation whose parent company was best known at home for a failing cruise ship line.
Rob Robbins, vice president of Goldbelt Raven, speaks at a conference on bidding for government work at Fort Detrick.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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In keeping with federal law granting special preferences to the Alaskan businesses, the new contract was awarded to Goldbelt Raven LLC without competition and could not be formally protested. But that did not stop private protests from many of the contract workers, who include virologists, laboratory technicians and administrative staff members working largely on the government's biological defense programs. Some worried that the company had little experience in biological research; others wondered if citing such an employer in their research papers would raise questions among their scientific peers.
"We work with the worst pathogens in the world," said a senior researcher, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of endangering his job. "This is how we're saving money?"
Scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases work in highly secure containment laboratories and must submit to extensive security screening. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, demands on the institute increased because of the threat of bioterrorism. The unit led efforts to identify the anthrax strain that was sent through the mail in 2001. Today, researchers work with the Department of Homeland Security, another Detrick tenant, on projects to protect U.S. troops and civilians from biological attack.
Demand for civilian labor is surging in the military. About one-third of the institute's 770 employees are contract workers.
Switching 160 of those workers to one contractor, Goldbelt Raven, was "for the general good," said Michael Younkins, an Army contracting officer involved in the process. "When it comes to meeting our goals for small businesses, it seemed like a really good opportunity."
Though he had never heard of Goldbelt Raven before 2003, Younkins said the company's $40 million, five-year contract was recently renewed for another year and its performance ranked "exceptional."
In mid-2003, in a regular meeting with the companies then representing the civilian employees -- including California-based Science Applications International Corp., Anteon International Corp. of Fairfax, Geo-Centers Inc. of Massachusetts and Ohio-based Clinical Research Management -- Detrick officials said that to cut administrative costs, they would award the contract the firms shared to one company. Several weeks later, it became clear none of them would win.
"Internal issues arose," Younkins wrote in an Aug. 14 memo, and Detrick would turn to an Alaska Native Corporation.
Younkins said he first learned about the "simplicity" of working with Alaska Native Corporations from a Goldbelt Raven employee. A meeting with Goldbelt Raven followed.
Goldbelt Raven, with offices in Chantilly, is a subsidiary of Goldbelt Inc. of Juneau, one of more than 200 native corporations formed under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In recent years Goldbelt has created five subsidiaries certified by the Small Business Administration as socially and economically disadvantaged businesses and expanded into government contracting. The parent company has been struggling for most of its history, recently having to sell off its Glacier Bay Cruiseline at a heavy loss.
Goldbelt Raven Vice President Rob Robbins deferred all questions about the parent company to Juneau, except to say that all of Goldbelt Raven's profit returns there.
Some of the Detrick staff chose not to transfer to Goldbelt Raven, according to several staff members. David Jackson, who tested vaccines on animals, retired early. "We were very shorthanded," says Jackson, now 65. "When a man or woman gets that tired, mistakes are made."
Gurjinder Singh, Goldbelt Raven's chief financial officer, said the company worked to avoid such difficulties and that "our success rate for the transition has been exceptional."
Detrick's decision to go with Goldbelt Raven drew praise from Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), who has been a prime mover behind regulations that grant special status to Alaska Native Corporations. "I am pleased that Goldbelt Raven is assisting your efforts to ensure the health and safety of our armed forces," he said in a letter to the infectious disease unit's commanding general, Maj. Gen. Lester Martinez-Lopez.
Goldbelt Raven "asked me to thank [Detrick], so I thanked them," Stevens said in an interview last week.