- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Federal investigators are auditing bills for luxury hotels and other expenses by an Arlington airport security contractor hired by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The inquiry was prompted by congressional charges that recruiters hiring airport security screeners stayed for weeks in plush resorts in Colorado, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere.

The recruiting firm, NCS Pearson — now called Pearson Government Solutions — is among the first contractors for the new Department of Homeland Security to be audited in a review of all the agency’s contracts.

The federal government is withholding $90 million in payments to the company until the audit can verify its billings were proper. The TSA hired Pearson last year to recruit more than 56,000 airport security screeners.

Pearson officials say they followed TSA guidelines when they used 150 hotels across the country as one-stop centers for airport screener applicants. The TSA is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re basically looking at all the contracts that were inherited by the Department of Homeland Security,” said Richard Berman, assistant inspector general of audits for the Department of Homeland Security.

The audits are being done jointly by the Homeland Security inspector general and the Defense Contract Audit Agency, the Pentagon’s auditing arm.

One audit is directed specifically at Pearson while a second is reviewing all other contracts of the Department of Homeland Security, which was chartered as a government agency this year.

“It may be that both of them are wrapped up by fall,” Mr. Berman said.

The separate audit of Pearson was prompted by a letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat.

The senators questioned the company’s expenditures after news reports said 20 Pearson recruiters stayed at the Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa in Telluride, Colo., for seven weeks. The resort offers guests an 18-hole golf course, spectacular views, an indoor pool and fluffy robes.

“TSA recruiters put staying at posh resorts ahead of their mission to enhance security at America’s airports,” the senators wrote in a June 27 letter to TSA chief James Loy. The query about the Colorado hotel raised questions about other luxury hotels where contractors stayed.

Pearson Vice President Steve Kingsley said recruiters followed TSA guidelines in choices of equipment, hotels and other sites for screening applicants.

He dismissed accusations of overspending by Mr. Wyden and Mr. Dorgan, saying, “They obviously don’t understand how the program works. These kinds of charges belittle the effort that thousands of people put forth last year.”

In the Washington area, Pearson recruiters used the Sheraton Reston Hotel in Reston, the Hotel Sofitel near Lafayette Square downtown and the Holiday Inn at BWI Airport. They also interviewed applicants at the MCI Center downtown.

The sites were chosen based on price, availability, space, proximity to airports and high-speed, secure Internet connections needed to process job applications, Mr. Kingsley said. Prices were determined by a standard government rate that varied by location from $55 to $208 per night.

Originally, Pearson wanted to use its own test centers to screen applicants but the suggestion was overruled by the TSA, Mr. Kingsley said. The company has 3,400 test centers worldwide, according to its Web site.

“TSA told us to abandon our plan and set up these hotel assessment centers,” he said. “They wanted to make sure there was a one-stop facility.”

Otherwise, he said, applicants would need to seek medical exams at a variety of outside clinics.

The decision to use hotels appears to have driven up expenses. The cost of Pearson’s contract rose from $104 million to $700 million in less than a year.

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