- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2011

Mayor Vincent C. Gray is urging the D.C. Council to take “prompt and favorable action” to retroactively approve and extend a controversial school security contract he and his former council colleagues staunchly opposed in August.

Mr. Gray asked the council to approve the more than $5 million contract to U.S. Security Associates (USSA) for services dating to October, and an additional $1.6 million for a contract extension through September.

According to D.C. law, all contracts more than $1 million must go to the council for approval, a requirement overlooked by Mr. Gray’s predecessor, and one he has pledged to follow.

On Tuesday, The Washington Times reported that the USSA contract, overseen by the Metropolitan Police Department, had been extended on a monthly basis without council review since November, in spite of the D.C. law and the mayor’s promise.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for council member Phil Mendelson, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, said in an email the mayor’s request for council review, which was signed by Mr. Gray on May 10, had just been received the previous day — after The Times article was published.

But on Thursday, council Secretary Nyasha Smith indicated in an email she forwarded the mayor’s request to the council on May 13.

Gray administration officials attributed the council’s confusion to routine bureaucratic delay.

Administration officials also confirmed on Thursday that a separate $18 million contract extension, granted to USSA by the previous administration without council review last August by the Department of Real Estate Services (DRES), is undergoing legal review, after which it will be submitted to the council for renewal.

The controversy over the USSA contract is rooted in “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,” according to a letter to the Office of Contracts and Procurement sent by Mr. Gray and his former council colleagues, including Mr. Mendelson, on Aug. 17, 2010.

Mr. Gray’s office did not respond to written requests for comment on his decision to now support the contract.

Mr. Mendelson’s office declined to comment.

In addition to previous concerns about USSA voiced by Mr. Gray, Mr. Mendelson and others, Watkins Security Services, a local partner whose president Richard Hamilton Sr. is an associate of Mr. Gray, has its own troubled history. In 2005, the District dumped the firm in light of performance problems and damning audits, but it returned in 2009 as a partner of USSA.

D.C. records show that since teaming up, USSA and Watkins have been fined more than 70 times by the DRES for security and contract violations, and an employees union claims Watkins has a record in D.C. of minimum-wage violations.

A spokesman for USSA said this week that the security violations were related to training exercises, and that routine claims and litigation against the firm pose no threat to the contract with the District.

Mr. Hamilton said his firm’s problems are in the past.

In the contract summary provided to the council, the Gray administration acknowledged a pending Labor Department investigation into wage and hour complaints against USSA. But the administration also noted that USSA and Watkins have demonstrated acceptable performance on federal contracts with the departments of Homeland Security and Labor.

The contract summary downplayed the significance of three federal lawsuits alleging discrimination against USSA that were identified in a Dun and Bradstreet report.

However, federal court records show that additional lawsuits are pending in Michigan against the firm for alleged violation of the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act and in Alabama alleging discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. In Georgia, a federal pregnancy discrimination lawsuit resulted in a consent decree against the firm in 2010.

In Alabama, a federal judge noted the “reprehensible conduct in this case that went all the way up the corporate ladder.”

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, which represents school security officers, school employees and school bus drivers, has been a strident opponent of the contracts awarded to USSA and Watkins Security. The labor union alleges serious health and safety violations in a number of states, and unfair labor practices in discouraging workers from organizing a union.

“We must do better by our children and the officers whose job it is to keep our schools and the public safe,” said Local 32BJ Vice President, Valarie Long. “The city must stop making secret deals with irresponsible contractors and provide District taxpayers with the quality services they deserve.”