Subcontractor's Story Details Post-9/11 Chaos

By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 28, 2005

Three years ago, Sunnye L. Sims lived in a two-bedroom apartment north of San Diego, paying $1,025 in monthly rent. Then she landed a dream job, with $5.4 million in pay for nine months of work.

Now she owns a $1.9 million stucco mansion with lofty ceilings on a hilltop, featuring sun-splashed palm trees and a circular driveway.

"She really went uphill," said Jerry Collins, a maintenance man at her former apartment complex who recalled Sims talking about her ambitions.

Sims is not a Hollywood starlet. She is a meeting-and-events planner who built her fortune on a U.S. government contract. In 2002, her tiny company secured a no-bid subcontract to manage logistics on an urgent federal project to protect the nation's airports in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Sims, now 42, recruited hundreds of people to help hire a government force of 60,000 airline passenger screeners on a tight deadline. With little experience, her tiny company was asked to help set up and run screener-assessment centers in a hurry at more than 150 hotels and other facilities. Her company eventually billed $24 million.

The company, Eclipse Events Inc., was among the most important of the 168 subcontractors hired by prime contractor NCS Pearson Inc. The cost of the overall contract rose in less than a year to $741 million from $104 million, and federal auditors concluded that $303 million of that spending was unsubstantiated.

Spurred by that audit, federal agents are examining the entire contract and focusing on Eclipse, according to government officials and Pearson. Investigators at the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General are trying to determine how and why Eclipse obtained the work and whether the company overcharged the government or submitted false claims.

The story of how Sims vaulted from relative obscurity into a key role overseeing tens of millions of dollars in government spending is still unfolding. A deeper examination of the Eclipse subcontract illustrates the chaos that accompanied homeland security initiatives after the terrorist attacks and shows how contractors were allowed to operate with little government oversight.

Eclipse came out of nowhere, starting as a one-woman operation based in Sims's apartment. She was hired in a hurry, through word of mouth, recommended by someone who did not review her background in detail. She had worked for more than a decade as an event planner for the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. But her company, Eclipse, did not exist as a corporation until Sims got the Pearson subcontract; two weeks later, she filed incorporation papers. Over the next several months, Sims hired hundreds of freelance meeting planners, many of them sight unseen.

As the number of hotel assessment sites expanded -- the Transportation Security Administration doubled the number of screeners to be hired -- Eclipse's subcontract grew to $24 million from $1.1 million. The company's authority to spend money on behalf of Pearson and the government also expanded -- in addition to its direct billings, Eclipse approved millions of dollars more in hotel charges by Eclipse employees and spending by other subcontractors, the audit shows.

"Eclipse did not have any other work, before, during, or after the completion of this subcontract," according to the Defense Contract Audit Agency, which was hired by the TSA to examine spending under the contract. A copy of the audit was obtained by The Washington Post.

Eclipse was hired as a field manager to coordinate with hotels for meeting spaces, conference rooms and food, as well as to act as the go-between with hotels and other vendors and subcontractors, such as local security companies. Eclipse employees later said they did the best they could under the most difficult of circumstances. But they also said Sims and her colleagues seemed overwhelmed.

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