Route to new ID cards benefits Ky. congressman

May 14, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Homeland Security has invested tens of millions of dollars and countless hours over the past four years on a seemingly simple task: creating a tamperproof identification card for airport, rail and maritime workers.

Yet nearly two years past a deadline, production of the card, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, has yet to begin.

Instead, the road to delivering this anti-terrorism tool has taken detours to locations, companies and groups often linked to Rep. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

It is a route that has benefited Rogers, creating jobs in his home district and profits for companies that donate to his political causes. Rogers has taken 11 trips on the tab of the American Association of Airport Executives, a trade group that was to profit from a no-bid contract that Rogers helped arrange. Work has even been set aside for Senture, a tiny startup company in Kentucky that employs the congressman's son.

"Something stinks in Corbin," said Jay M. Meier, senior securities analyst at MJSK Equity Research in Minneapolis, which follows the identification card industry, referring to the Kentucky community that has perhaps benefited the most from Rogers' interventions.

Rogers said that any requirements that he imposed on the TWIC program have been motivated by a desire to end the delays.

Rogers, 68, whom the Lexington Herald-Leader last year called the "Prince of Pork," has never been shy about using clout gained over 13 House terms to steer federal dollars to his sparsely populated, poor corner of southeastern Kentucky.

"Our people will be on the front lines in the war against terrorism worldwide," he told Corbin leaders in 2003, as he announced plans to build a plant for NucSafe, a radiation detection equipment firm.

During the Clinton presidency, the administration needed congressional backing to fix problems in printing a new fraud-resistant green card for permanent legal immigrants. To win Rogers' endorsement, the administration offered to set up the centralized card plant in Corbin. The $5.2 million plant, run by contract employees, opened in 1998.

The transportation worker identification card was first proposed in 2002. Rogers inserted language into appropriations bills that pushed the government to use the same patented green card technology and to produce this new card in Corbin.

Two former homeland security officials said they were confounded. They had identified a more flexible, secure technology known as a smart card, which relies upon tiny computer chips in the card. In the green card, data are recorded on a reflective optical stripe.

"It would be like saying it would be quicker to take a bicycle instead of a Toyota Corolla," said one former DHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Kentucky companies turned up in each phase of the tests of the cards.

One of them, Senture, had a close relationship with Rogers. In 2004, Rogers arranged the financing for a $4 million homeland security contract for Senture. Now, Senture would land even more department work, as BearingPoint, a Virginia company hired to test prototype transportation worker cards, selected Senture to set up a call center for the test. About the time that contract was first advertised, John Rogers, the congressman's son, was hired by Senture as a computer systems administrator.

"It has nothing to do with who my father is," John Rogers said in a telephone interview. He said he had worked in data management and information technology for 13 years.

Starting in 2004, the congressman's staff pressed the Transportation Security Administration to hire a nonprofit, Virginia-based trade group, the American Association of Airport Executives, to help handle background checks for workers' ID cards.

Since 2000, the trade group has paid for trips by Rogers and his wife worth more than $75,000, financial records show. Through its executives and political action committee, the group donated at least $18,000 to Rogers over the past four years.

Rogers ended up inserting language last May into the 2006 appropriations bill that mandated hiring the trade group. It was necessary, Rogers said at the time, because the airport group also helped handle background checks for airport workers. It made no sense, he said, to hire yet another contractor.

Late last year, while Congress was considering the allocation for the airport group, its executives went shopping for investors to share in the new for-profit venture they decided to create to capitalize on the deal.

Oversight groups questioned the effort to sell benefits gained from the special treatment. "This is really a perversion of every part of the contracting process," said Danielle Brian, Project on Government Oversight's executive director.

Charles M. Barclay, the airport group's executive director, and two other executives did not respond to e-mail and phone messages.

The company ultimately selected to serve as that partner was Daon, a biometrics software company with offices in Reston, Va. It had sponsored, along with the airport executives group, a July 2005 conference and golf outing that Rogers attended in Dublin, Ireland, where Daon is based.

But executives in the competitive biometrics industry, who have long waited for a chance to bid on the $1 billion project, protested when Homeland Security in April, belatedly realizing it had to comply with Rogers' mandate, withdrew plans to hold an open competition for much of the deal.

Finally, Thursday evening, as teams of lobbyists for Daon's rivals pressed Congress to rescind the deal, Homeland Security and Rogers issued separate statements, reversing course. The no-bid contract for the airport executives would be spiked.

When the identification cards do finally start to roll of the production line, the plan still calls for them to be made in Corbin.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.