By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Homeland Security officials unveiled new steps yesterday to ensure that federal buildings are not left unprotected, after two cases in which contract security guards stayed away from their jobs because they had not been paid.
The new measures come after weeks of congressional scrutiny of the Federal Protective Service, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that provides the private security guards at most federal buildings. Legislators have contended that the service's poor record in paying and overseeing contractors could leave government buildings vulnerable to crime or terrorism.
In the service's latest headache, about 20 security guards did not show up for work one day this month at two government buildings, including the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Their employer, D.C.-based Jenkins Security Consultants, could not pay the guards on time because it was owed more than $1 million from the Protective Service, according to owner Robert Jenkins. Their posts were filled by other Jenkins employees.
Julie Myers, an assistant secretary of Homeland Security, said at a news conference yesterday that the agency had been scrambling to overhaul its payment system. "We still have more work to do," she said.
To head off further problems, she said, the Protective Service will provide by Aug. 3 the $8 million in back pay it owes 21 security guard companies. The service is checking to see whether any other local guard firms are in financial straits because of late government payments, she said.
The service is also stepping up its employee training and has named an ombudsman to monitor the security guard contracts, she said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who played a prominent role in three recent congressional hearings on the Protective Service, said she was pleased with the steps.
Without action, "vital security posts could have been unguarded. That is so unacceptable in the post-9/11 environment," she said at the news conference.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, praised the "good preliminary steps." But, he said in a statement, "more needs to be done to assure that contracts governing guard services in federal facilities throughout the country are properly administered."
The hearings on the Protective Service have highlighted the tensions involved in using private contractors for government functions. Founded in 1971, the Protective Service was initially made up of 5,000 full-time federal police officers. It now comprises about 1,150 federal officers who oversee 15,000 private contract guards.
The hearings also have underscored Homeland Security's problems in absorbing so many new agencies. The department is seeking to reduce the protective service's federal police staff to 950, in part because of financial shortfalls. That has raised concerns about the service's ability to oversee its contract guards.
Last month, the service came under fire when some guards did not show up for work at the Education Department and two Food and Drug Administration offices. The guards' employer, Systems Training and Resource Technologies Inc., based in Springfield, had not paid them in a month, citing financial difficulties.
The Protective Service had paid that contractor for its services. It later was revealed that the company was run by a man who had served five years in jail for bank fraud and money laundering.