DHS contracting criticized

Congress finds Homeland Security contracts riddled with rip-offs, thanks to agency's reliance on no-bid rules for certain manufacturers.

Homeland Security contracts worth $34 billion have been marred by gross abuse, overcharging and mismanagement, a bipartisan congressional report charged yesterday, the Washington Post reports. DHS routinely uses no-bid deals and has a critical shortage of contract managers, the report finds.

The value of contracts awarded without full competition increased 739 percent from 2003 to 2005, to $5.5 billion, more than half the $10 billion awarded by the department that year. By comparison, the agency awarded a total of $3.5 billion in contracts in 2003, the year it was created.
Among the abuses:
  • A Defense Contract Audit Agency review of an NCS Pearson Inc. contract to hire airport screeners uncovered at least $297 million of questionable costs, including luxury hotel rooms. The company has defended its performance in previous statements.
  • A surveillance system for monitoring activity on the Mexican and Canadian borders does not work because of cameras that malfunction when exposed to snow, ice or humidity.
  • Two TSA employees used government purchase cards to buy $136,000 worth of personal items, including leather briefcases.

And it's not just contracting problems at DHS. Poor planning, inadequate oversight and heavy use of no-bid contracts are basic complaints about the agency. Beyond these specific cases, the report highlights overall problems with Homeland Security contracting, including poor planning, a dependence on no-bid contracts and inadequate oversight.

Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University, said industry consolidation in defense and homeland security increasingly enables firms to present themselves as sole-source bidders, at the same time that government expertise and contract management staffs have been hollowed out.

"They'd like to boll-weevil themselves down to the agencies and create dependencies that will last for years, if not decades," Light said.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).said: "Unfortunately, its acquisition structure and workforce challenges . . . betray serious weaknesses that are impeding the ability of DHS to protect the homeland." His committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Homeland Security contracting today.