By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007
The Bush administration wants to overhaul the troubled agency in charge of security at most federal buildings, cutting personnel and giving a bigger role to local police. Lawmakers are fighting the plan, saying that it could leave government employees more vulnerable to crime or attacks by terrorists.
The police agency, the Federal Protective Service, employs about 15,000 contract security guards at government buildings nationwide. It has been under fire for its performance in the Washington region, where a report last year found that 30 percent of the service's guards analyzed had expired certifications.
In addition, security guards threatened to walk off their jobs at some D.C. area government facilities this month after they hadn't been paid by their contractor. The Protective Service had hired the contractor without realizing that it was run by a felon and his wife, according to interviews. The incident is the subject of a hearing on Capitol Hill today.
The Department of Homeland Security, parent of the Federal Protective Service, denies that its plans could put government employees in jeopardy. The department wants to shrink the cash-strapped service from 1,150 to 950 federal police officers and staffers and trim their responsibilities. That would enable the service to better oversee the 15,000 guards, whose numbers would not change, officials say.
"We're trying to bring discipline to how those [contract] people are used," Michael P. Jackson, Homeland Security deputy secretary, said during a recent House hearing.
But legislators on two House committees have assailed the plan, saying that more -- not fewer -- federal police officers are needed to oversee the guards and respond to emergency calls. They say the service shouldn't shift such calls to already busy local police departments.
"They are exposing up to 2 million federal workers to greater risk," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
The Protective Service was created by President Richard Nixon in 1971 after a wave of riots and bombings and the slaying of a federal judge. Initially, the service employed about 5,000 armed federal police officers. But in the 1980s, it started hiring private security guards for routine tasks such as checking visitors' identifications. Such guards can restrain intruders but can't make arrests.
With the sharp rise in terrorist threats, the contract guard force has ballooned from a few thousand before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to 15,000 armed and unarmed guards.
The number of federal police officers and staffers in the service has been shrinking, however, from about 1,400 to 1,150 over the past four years. They patrol, evaluate building security plans and arrest thousands of people each year suspected of committing crimes on federal property. They also monitor the guards.
"We have to provide oversight. The problem is that the manpower is not there," David L. Wright, head of the Protective Service employees' union local, told the House Committee on Homeland Security last month.
An audit presented at that hearing highlighted the service's difficulties in overseeing its contract guards.
It found that 30 percent of the guards in the D.C. area whose records were reviewed had expired certifications, including background checks due every two years. One guard had a felony assault conviction but was still on the job seven months after the Protective Service found out.
Only a dozen service employees were checking the credentials and performances of the 5,700 guards in the D.C. area -- "an inadequate number," said the audit, conducted by the Homeland Security inspector general's office.
James Taylor, the department's deputy inspector general, testified that further reductions in the service "could lead to uneven effects across the nation, perhaps placing some facilities . . . at risk."
Gary Schenkel, a former Marine lieutenant colonel who runs the Federal Protective Service, said that it had assigned more employees to monitor the credentials of guards in the D.C. area.
"I think we've got a handle on it now," he said in an interview.
And, Schenkel said, the Washington region has little to fear in the downsizing. The service has shelved a controversial proposal to eliminate about half of the 200 federal police officers and staffers in the area, he said, adding that it will only change by "negligible numbers." Officials have not pinpointed where the cuts will be made.
Homeland Security officials say they have no choice but to reshape the service. It has been in financial straits since it was absorbed by the department in 2003 and lost a $139 million annual subsidy from the General Services Administration. The service's budget, paid by fees, is about $900 million.
But the reorganization is also aimed at bringing greater efficiency to a service that oversees security at 8,900 buildings nationwide, officials say. The service's federal police officers should focus on priorities such as anti-terrorism planning and overseeing the contract guards, officials say. The service shouldn't be tied up responding to emergency calls when local police officers can do that, officials say.
Schenkel gave an example: In Chicago, the service has a dozen federal police officers. The city has 13,600.
"Who do you think can provide a better response?" he asked.
Legislators question whether local police departments should pick up the calls instead of Protective Service officers on the scene.
"I don't think that visitors to, or employees of, federal government agencies . . . would be very comforted by the knowledge that if something occurs, if a gunman enters the building, that the contract service will be able to call 911," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, at a hearing in April.
The House has ordered the service to freeze the downsizing until it signs agreements with police departments across the country. It's not clear whether that requirement, part of the Homeland Security spending bill, will become law.
In the Washington area, the service's latest troubles came this month, when guards threatened to walk off their jobs at the Department of Education and two Food and Drug Administration offices, several security guards said.
The guards' employer, Systems Training and Resource Technologies Inc., or Startech, based in Springfield, hadn't paid many of its 400 D.C. area employees in a month, citing financial difficulties.
"There was a feeling of frustration," said one guard, Brian Smith. Most employees "live from paycheck to paycheck," he said.
The incident showed how difficult it can be to monitor security companies. The man listed on Homeland Security documents as Startech's president, Weldon Waites, pleaded guilty in 1990 to federal bank fraud, money laundering and other charges, court records show. He served five years in prison.
Waites's spokeswoman, Clare Morris, confirmed the conviction but said "there's not a connection" with Startech's financial troubles.
Homeland Security does criminal checks on security guards but not company owners or managers. Regulation of security companies is stricter in Virginia. But Waites's name was not on Startech's license application with the state Department of Criminal Justice.
"If this gentleman had been listed with us, like he was supposed to, and submitted his fingerprints, we would have stopped him from being in the industry," said Robbie Robertson, the department's criminal history manager.
Morris said Waites could not explain why he was listed as a Startech director in state corporation records but not on its license application.
In an interview, Waites said he was "overseer" of Startech and had ceded the title of president to his wife. He said that the company went into a tailspin because of problems with its bank loan. He denied any wrongdoing.
The company's former general manager, Ann Marie Messner, has asked Homeland Security to investigate the company for ethical problems. She said in an interview that Waites had used company money to pay for condos in the District and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Waites confirmed that the security company was paying the mortgages on the properties, which include a $652,000 condo he bought in a Penn Quarter building with a rooftop swimming pool, according to real estate records.
Waites said he used the condos for Startech business.
The Protective Service says it resolved the walkout situation with Startech successfully, filling in for several guards who didn't show up. It avoided a wider walkout by finding another security company to take on the others. The Department of Labor is investigating the employees' missing wages.
A transportation subcommittee chaired by Norton, the District's House delegate, is to look into the matter today.
The Protective Service "is on such shaky ground," she said. "We've got to do something now."
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.