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Bill Would Require FPS to Examine Federalizing Contract Guards

09/13/2010 -Legislation set for introduction Tuesday would require the Federal Protective Service (FPS) to evaluate federalizing its mismanaged 15,000-member contract guard force, according to the bill’s co-authors.

The bill would also boost the agency’s core complement of law enforcement officers by 500, from 850 to 1,350, and would require the agency to establish a dedicated contract oversight staff, according to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX). Chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, Jackson-Lee co-authored the bill with committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS).

FPS, a unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) charged with protecting 9,000 government facilities, has been the subject of a multi-year investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), with results that shocked even the most veteran government observers.

GAO found that FPS inspectors responsible for building risk assessments cut-and-pasted prior site assessments into new documents, and in one case offered a building assessment for a site that was actually a vacant lot. A contract guard at one government building sent an infant in a child carrier through a belt-fed x-ray machine. In another incident, contract guards watched a criminal suspect run out the entrance of a federal building with handcuffs on one wrist, trailed by a federal agent, but neglected to give chase. More recently GAO investigators were able to pass bomb components through a contractor-run x-ray checkpoint and assemble an explosive device in a building rest room.

The developments spurred debate over whether FPS’s force should be federalized to mirror partner agencies’, like the uniform branch of the Secret Service and the Pentagon Police. Opponents note that federalization of airport security screeners did not eliminate dysfunction, while proponents, like former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, argue that federalization should occur but without the haste taken in aviation security.

The bill would require GAO to evaluate the federalization pilot and report back to lawmakers. It would also require FPS to set minimum standards for training and certification of guards, require law enforcement presence at the highest risk federal buildings, and would direct GAO to evaluate FPS’s fee-based funding structure, in which client agencies are charged for services by the square foot.

FPS suffered mounting staff attrition and budget shortfalls after its transfer in 2003 from the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to DHS, where it became a unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Amid developments from the GAO investigation, FPS was transferred last year to DHS’s executive-level National Protection and Programs Directorate.

Meanwhile, FPS has improved oversight of its contract guard force, said spokesman Michael Keegan.

“We have undertaken a 100 percent review of contract guard certification and qualification records and issued instructions for immediate corrective actions and penalties for any deficiencies,” Keegan told Security Management. “…FPS also continues to strengthen communications and feedback channels with all of our stakeholders to ensure that our countermeasures are performing at an optimum level and keeping federal workers safe.”

Leadership of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is expected to introduce separate reform legislation this month. Whether a final compromise bill can reach final passage in an election year with only three months remaining in the current Congress is uncertain.

The bill does not address one critical weakness uncovered by GAO: the facility security committee (FSC) structure. Security programs in GSA-owned buildings with multiple agency tenants are overseen by an FSC consisting of representatives from GSA, FPS, and each tenant agency.  The cost of projects like new, building-wide CCTV systems are currently shared by tenants. Therefore, security improvements essentially require unanimous approval.

A House committee official told Security Management that the FSC structure falls under GSA, which is outside the committee’s jurisdiction.