Stumbling over the NOI contract

March 20, 1995

Baltimore housing chief Daniel P. Henson III put himself in an awkward situation by his decision to hire the Nation of Islam Security Agency to guard the city's troubled public housing projects. The arrangement has drawn fire both from federal housing officials critical of the bidding process and from members of Congress who oppose funding an affiliate of Minister Louis Farrakhan's black separatist organization.

Mr. Henson thus finds himself in the position of having to defend NOI's effectiveness without in any way condoning the anti-Semitic bigotry associated with Mr. Farrakhan's religious movement. That would be a delicate maneuver for the most politically adroit official; Mr. Henson has complicated his task by approaching it with political tin ears.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development charges that Baltimore improperly selected NOI Security for the public housing contract because it was not the lowest bidder and because it did not have as much experience as other companies bidding for the same job. The HUD charges were leveled after one of the companies whose bid was rejected sued the city Housing Authority for failing to comply with federal procurement rules.

Officials around the country have credited the unarmed, bow-tied guards of NOI with reducing violent crime in dangerous public housing projects. Mr. Henson said they succeeded where others had failed and called the contract award "fair, equitable and in the best interest of the housing authority." Many public housing residents agree. NOI's no-nonsense reputation gives them a credibility that greatly enhances the dollar value of their services. But there have also been reports NOI has not lived up to its contracts in other cities, and federal investigators have accused the agency of endangering residents by hiring convicted felons as guards.

Mr. Henson could have avoided a lot of flak had he adhered scrupulously to federal procurement guidelines. Instead he tried to ram through the deal, first by awarding the contract on a no-bid basis, then soliciting bids and choosing NOI with no explanation of the circumstances involved. That was a mistake. He should have known the decision would be scrutinized, if only because any program associated with Mr. Farrakhan is likely to become a lightning rod for controversy.

We empathize with Mr. Henson's sense of urgency. He may have honestly believed that NOI was the best security agency for the job. But in his haste to act, he ignored rumblings that should have warned of trouble. In doing so he jeopardized the housing cause he so zealously serves.

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