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School security contract extended sans D.C. review
Company avoids council oversight
Question of the Day
A lucrative school security contract awarded to a troubled company and its questionable subcontractor is being extended on a monthly basis by the mayor’s office in spite of a D.C. law and a promise by Mayor Vincent C. Gray that all contracts in excess of $1 million would go to the D.C. Council for review.
U.S. Security Associates (USSA) and its subcontractor, Watkins Security Agency Inc., run by Richard A. Hamilton Sr., a retired Metropolitan Police Department detective, Ward 7 community developer and Gray associate, were awarded contracts by the Department of Real Estate Services and D.C. Public Schools in 2009 that together totaled more than $40 million, according to the D.C. Office of Contracts and Procurement.
In August, after the Department of Real Estate Services exercised a one-year renewal worth more than $18 million without council review, then-Chairman Gray joined the full council in sending a letter to David P. Gragan, chief procurement officer of the Office of Contracts and Procurement, expressing alarm that USSA “has admitted failing multiple security penetration tests conducted by the Department of Real Estate Services, putting the safety of our city and residents at risk.”
Mr. Gray and his colleagues wrote at the time that USSA has “a history of questionable conduct and discrimination complaints, including two lawsuits by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a recent $2.5 million jury verdict for sexual harassment and retaliation, as well as sizable wage and hour litigation.”
But procurement office records show that beginning in November, the police department has extended the school security contract on a monthly basis without submitting it for council review, as required by D.C. law.
Union officials say they are disappointed with Mr. Gray in light of his campaign promise to rise above the contracting squabbles that characterized his predecessor’s term and to respect the authority of the council.
“The mayor’s not doing his job to protect District workers, schools and taxpayers from bad contractors,” said Jaime Contreras, regional director of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents school security officers, school employees and school bus drivers. “It’s time for Mr. Gray to help the city move beyond the days of deals that reward poor performance.
“He should keep his promise to end an era of contracting scandals by following a law that requires the council to review all contracts worth $1 million or more,” Mr. Contreras said.
“The opportunity for the city council to conduct thorough investigations into city contractors is necessary to prevent irresponsible companies from getting taxpayer money,” he said. “We are moving beyond the days of deals that reward poor performance. The District deserves accountability, and that is what this hearing is about.”
At that hearing, which featured public testimony from a USSA employee who complained of wage cuts and frozen benefits, procurement office general counsel Nancy Hapeman ensured the council that the Gray administration would be submitting a six-month extension of the school security contract to the council for approval by April. Yet the Gray administration has continued to extend the contract on a monthly basis without council review, according to the employees union.
On May 9, at a town-hall meeting in Ward 2, a resident asked Mr. Gray why the school security contract had not undergone council review.
“I don’t think that that’s possible,” the mayor said, according to a video of the meeting during which Mr. Gray reiterated a pledge to send all contracts in excess of $1 million to the council for review. “I don’t have any information to the contrary.”
Mr. Gray’s office did not respond to calls and written questions. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, whose department is ultimately responsible for school safety and security, was “unable to comment at this time,” according to an email from her spokesman.
Mr. Mendelson’s office did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman for Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat who serves on Mr. Mendelson’s committee, declined to answer questions from The Washington Times. Council members Muriel Bowser of Ward 4 and Marion Barry of Ward 8, both Democrats who also serve on the committee, did not return calls.
“I am aware of a number of issues and questions being raised about this security firm and, in particular, this contract,” said council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, in an email from his chief of staff. “But [Mr. Gray] committed to send the contract renewal to the council for review, and I have no reason to believe they wont honor that commitment.”
The school security contract has a controversial history. In October 2009, the city’s previous contractor, Hawk One, collapsed after compiling a shoddy performance record, according to the Aug. 17, 2010, letter Mr. Gray signed along with his former council colleagues.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to avoid a repeat of the poor performance and irresponsibility we experienced with Hawk One … by saying no to its replacement, U.S. Security Associates,” the letter states, after referring to USSA’s record of fines and litigation in more than a dozen states.
A statement Monday from USSA officials blamed the employees union for spearheading a negative media campaign because of collective bargaining disagreements with the security firm.
“The SEIU is taking every opportunity to spread negative publicity about the company,” the statement read.
The company also noted that despite being one of the largest security guard companies in the U.S., it has a relatively low rate of litigation. The firm, in the statement, also said that any failed security penetration tests were for training purposes only.
The USSA contract marked the return of Watkins Security Services, a local partner that has its own troubled history having been dumped by the District in 2005 - but it does have a favorable relationship with Mr. Gray. D.C. records show that USSA and Watkins have been fined more than 70 times by the Department of Real Estate Services for security and contract violations citywide in the past year or so. And the employees union claims Watkins has a record in D.C. of minimum-wage violations.
A July 2005 audit by the D.C. Office of Inspector General also found persistent problems with the firm’s employee screening and training procedures, and a 2004 audit concluded that the District overspent by more than $8 million in awarding a $42 million contract to Watkins instead of more-qualified bidders.
Mr. Hamilton, who has more than 400 employees, said of his company’s past: “Like any company, there have been challenges, but we have met them.”
The retired detective declined to answer specific questions about the contract, which grants his company 35 percent of the profits. “It’s not really our contract,” Mr. Hamilton said. “We’re fortunate to get a piece of it, and we’re trying our level best to perform to standards.”
Of his relationship with the mayor, Mr. Hamilton said the two have known each other for more than 25 years. “We are acquaintances, and we have worked together in the past,” he said. “I know he respects me, and I greatly respect him.”
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