Report: Guards caught napping, watching TV, chatting on job at Social Security

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 6:27 PM

Private security guards protecting the Social Security Administration were found napping, watching television, chatting with co-workers, talking for hours on the phone and failing to examine identification badges at checkpoints, according to a new watchdog report.

The report, by the agency's office of inspector general, details several concerns about guards employed by Paragon Systems of Chantilly, a private firm that provides security services at federal installations across the Washington area. The company says it has made changes to protective services at the SSA headquarters in suburban Baltimore and disputes some of the conclusions published in the report released last week.

Between January and August 2010, auditors observed several guards assigned to fixed posts not checking identification badges, "dozing off" at their posts and "loitering at posts involved in personal conversations." During a weekend spot check, a guard was found watching a small television under a desk; guards assigned to roving patrols were observed not providing foot patrols, according to the report.

"Guards not complying with post orders as required by the contract could compromise SSA's physical security," the report said.

Guards also appeared to have inadequate weapons and equipment training. Two guards neglected to pause an X-ray scanner to review scanned items, and other guards appeared unable to operate vehicle barriers and other screening equipment. And despite the generally accepted preference that inspectors be the same gender as a person being inspected, "we also viewed two male guards using the handheld wand metal detectors on female contractors entering the building," the report said.

Agency officials also complained about a high volume of telephone calls made to guard posts. Telephone logs from May 1 to June 11 found 227 calls lasting more than 20 minutes and 23 calls lasting one hour or longer; 69 calls were made overnight to the posts, leading investigators and agency officials to conclude the calls "were not of a business nature."

Paragon has been paid about $71 million as part of a 10-year, $242 million security contract agreement, according to the report.

SSA officials cooperated with the inspector general and shared several concerns with watchdogs, according to the report. Agency officials cited in the report vowed to closely monitor the contract.

In a statement, the company said it has "grave concerns" with the report's conclusions because the incidents detailed occurred last year and were quickly corrected.

"This misleading disclosure gives an incomplete picture of the swift actions taken by Paragon to resolve these problems, including replacing personnel and installing an independent quality control officer to monitor progress," the company said in a statement.

"Paragon believes that the concerns noted in the recent OIG report, and initially identified in discussions with the client last spring, have been effectively addressed and resolved," the company said.

The report comes at a time of increased threats against administrative law judges, who settle disputes about Social Security benefits. They were targeted at least 50 times during the latest six-month reporting period - up significantly from numbers collected between 2002 and 2005, according to the Association of Administrative Law Judges.

Threats against SSA employees generally are also on the rise, jumping from 897 in fiscal 2007 to 2,336 last year, according to the inspector general's office. About 13 percent of 2,100 employees quizzed by the IG said they'd been threatened at work in the past three years - half of them more than once.

Concerns with private security firms protecting federal property are nothing new. The most damning allegations stem from a July 2009 Government Accountability Office report that exposed lax security procedures at 10 of the nation's largest federal installations. Government investigators successfully smuggled bomb-making materials into the buildings and constructed small explosive devices that could have detonated.

Subsequent reports on poor record-keeping and training records have led to few, if any changes. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who requested the 2009 report, is preparing to reintroduce a bill establishing stricter training standards and oversight of the Federal Protective Service, the tiny Homeland Security agency responsible for protecting more than 1 million federal workers at 9,000 federal buildings.


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