Airport security agency accused of waste

Audit reports, interviews indicate up to $250 million in questionable TSA costs

April 09, 2003|By Mark Fineman and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Mark Fineman and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Nestled in farm country near Thomas Jefferson's estate, the Charlottesville, Va., airport handles about 470 departing passengers a day.

When the airlines paid for security at Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, they managed to check passengers with a staff of 15 screeners. But since the federal government took over airport security, it has deployed 39, a daily average of 12 passengers per screener.

Around the United States, federal air marshal field offices use government-leased sport utility vehicles. That costs taxpayers about $200,000 more per year than if the marshals switched to sedans, auditors found. But the Transportation Security Administration says SUVs are needed to reach rugged rural shooting ranges where the marshals practice.

Last year's federal takeover of airport security has been hailed as a success in the war on terrorism after the new agency met what many said were impossible deadlines set by Congress.

Now, audit reports and interviews with investigators and lawmakers indicate the TSA may have wasted as much as $250 million.

Created in a climate of urgency and fear, the TSA was given the challenge of securing 429 airports in record time. Each airport had its own vulnerabilities. Given the magnitude of the task, some funds were perhaps bound to be misspent. Yet even by that standard, the extent of the TSA's largess has been surprising.

From overstaffing rural airports to paying security companies at inflated rates to buying more than 1,000 baggage scanners built with dated technology for $1 million each, the agency let spending get out of control, critics charge. Some in Congress cite the TSA as a classic example of federal gold-plating at a time when cities and states cannot afford to fund counterterrorism needs.

"Millions, millions" have been wasted, said House aviation subcommittee Chairman John L. Mica, a Florida Republican. "We've been trying to get it under control."

Rep. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who heads the appropriations subcommittee responsible for the TSA's budget, has blasted the agency for "budget estimates pulled from thin air" and "wild funding swings."

One government official familiar with the numbers said the estimate of a quarter-billion dollars in questionable costs is a "reasonable" figure. Inadequate oversight of contracts with private companies is behind much of the problem, said the official, who asked not to be identified.

The main contract last year for recruiting federal security screeners ballooned from an initial estimate of $100 million to about $700 million, according to the Transportation Department's inspector general. The escalation resulted partly from having to hire about 60,000 screeners instead of 30,000, as originally expected.

A separate inspector general audit found as much as $305 million in potential overbilling by airport security companies hired by the government to fill in until federal screeners could be deployed.

Critics also have raised questions about minivan-sized scanners used to examine luggage for hidden explosives, which are prone to false alarms and maintenance problems.

The TSA bought 1,110 machines at $1 million apiece to meet an end-of-year deadline for inspecting all checked bags. Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead has said their performance remains "a significant unknown."

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is a critic of TSA spending. "Nobody is saying they ought to eat peanut butter sandwiches and live in pup tents," he said, "but at a time when so many programs are being devastated, you've got to show you are being responsible with taxpayers' dollars."

The TSA rejects charges that it allowed waste and abuse to spread. At the inspector general's urging, it has brought in two Defense Department agencies to oversee and audit a portfolio of $8.5 billion in contracts. And it announced plans to trim the screener work force by 3,000.

Spokeswoman Heather Rosenker said the agency will go after contractors that overcharged. "I think TSA has been an excellent steward of the taxpayers' money," she said. "Nobody knew the magnitude of what we were getting into."

But Elaine Duke, TSA director of acquisitions, acknowledged at a recent Washington conference that there was little or no planning for procurement during the drive to take over airport security. "I think when you do things that quickly, there are some things you have to live with later," she said.

Through it all, the companies that won billions in TSA contracts have reaped substantial profits.

InVision, a California manufacturer of explosives scanners for baggage, reported 2002 profits of $78.3 million, 10 times higher than its 2001 net earnings. NCS Pearson Government Solutions, an international personnel and education company that won the screener-recruitment contract, reported revenues of more than $300 million from the deal.

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