The Transportation Security Administration has failed to stop excessive spending, raising concerns of "unethical and possibly illegal activities" by employees who spent $500,000 on artwork and silk plants for a new operations center, according to a government report released yesterday.
The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general blamed TSA management for allowing "waste and abuse" in a $19 million project to build an operations center in Herndon. The facility is a communication center for the agency and monitors all transportation security incidents.
TSA chief David M. Stone said the operations center in Herndon is "worth every dollar spent."
The report is the latest to find lavish spending at the three-year-old agency. In 2002, the agency was criticized soon after its creation for spending $410,000 on the executive office suite of its first leader. In 2003, the agency threw itself a $461,000 birthday party and awards banquet to boost morale among screeners, an expense the inspector general called "excessive." Other government reports have noted a lack of control in contracts that ballooned by hundreds of millions of dollars to companies such as Boeing Co. and NCS Pearson.
In the most recent incident, the TSA said that it discovered unusual payments to vendors from some of its employees and reported them to the inspector general. "TSA has already put in place a new management structure to strengthen its acquisition program to ensure responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars," TSA spokesman Mark O. Hatfield Jr. said in a written statement.
Working under a self-imposed deadline in 2003 and with little oversight, some TSA employees spared little expense to outfit the new Transportation Security Operations Center, ignored federal contracting rules and appeared to conceal their spending, according to the inspector general's report. When the center opened in September 2003, it included a 4,200-square-foot gym for 79 employees that cost $350,000; seven kitchens outfitted with numerous appliances, including Sub-Zero refrigerators costing $3,000 each; and large offices -- even for lower-level employees -- equipped with cable television at a cost of $63,099 for three years.
An unidentified manager at the center steered much of the contract work to an unnamed tool company, which was encouraged to provide office supplies and artwork for the facility even though the company had little experience in that business, the report said. The manager violated the TSA's ethics rules and other federal rules, the inspector general said, and "may have violated the requirements to be impartial and not use his public position for private gain." The inspector general referred the manager, who stepped down from his position in October 2003 to take a job with the tool company, to the Justice Department.
The TSA said it generally concurred with the inspector general's findings and said that many of the spending abuses were committed by what it described as "lower-level employees." The agency defended the speed at which the facility was built. Its current leader, David M. Stone, said the center is "worth every dollar spent."
The center, which is adjacent to a similar operations center for the Federal Air Marshal Service, was a temporary home for the Joint Field Office operations, under the U.S. Secret Service, for the presidential inauguration in January. In a reply to the inspector general's report, Stone said the center needs its various amenities, such as kitchens, because the building is designed to be a center to continue operations during a crisis.
"For example, the all-purpose room converts to a dorm and then kitchens, fitness center, and washrooms are sized to accommodate a surge of [people] from across the Federal Government," Stone said in a letter dated March 25.
Another inspector general report released yesterday found that security screeners continue to miss knives, guns and other prohibited items in tests conducted at security checkpoints and recommended better technology to help screeners detect weapons and explosives. The TSA has said it has been constrained by its limited budget to deploy new technologies. Yesterday, the agency said more could be done.
"We will continue to seek incremental gains in screener performance through training, testing and management practices," Hatfield said.
Clark Kent Ervin, the former Homeland Security Department inspector general who is now director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, said the results of both reports were disturbing.
"It's all interrelated," Ervin said. "Part of the problem of why the kind of technology and equipment we need hasn't been deployed is expense. That's why they can't afford to waste any money on $500,000 artwork and silk plants."