- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2010

An audit of government efforts to protect more than 400 federal courthouses in 12 judicial districts nationwide says there are weaknesses not only among the court security officers assigned to keep guns, contraband and other prohibited items out but in the oversight of the courts’ security programs and systems.

In a report, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General was critical of efforts by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) to oversee the protection of federal courthouses in six judicial districts, noting that the chief judges in three districts expressed concerns about the physical security of their courthouses.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, in a 65-page report, said the audit identified weaknesses in the Marshals Service efforts to secure federal court facilities and its management of the court security officers program. In addition, he said, the audit found deficiencies in the agency’s oversight of contracts awarded for court security officers and various security systems.

“The USMS plays an essential role in ensuring the security of our federal courthouses,” Mr. Fine said. “It is critical that the USMS promptly address the deficiencies that we identified in this audit to improve security in federal courthouses throughout the country.”

The USMS’s Judicial Facilities Security Program provides over 5,000 court security officers and security systems and equipment at more than 400 federal courthouses in a dozen federal judicial circuits. Court security officers, or CSO, use security screening systems to detect and intercept weapons and other prohibited items from persons seeking to bring them into federal court facilities.

Both the CSO and the security systems used to protect the courthouses are obtained through contracts with private security firms. In fiscal 2009, the federal judiciary spent $370 million on federal court security services.

According to the IG’s report, the audit found that not all CSO had been fully trained on the use of security screening equipment, and three of the six district offices had failed to conduct required quarterly testing of security procedures to screen visitors, packages and mail delivered to the courthouses.

In addition, the report noted that in February 2009 several USMS district offices failed to detect mock explosive devices sent by the agency’s headquarters to the district offices for local testing purposes. Mr. Fine said the audit also found instances where security features of new equipment were not being used, partly because no one had received training on the features.

Acknowledging that three of the chief judges interviewed expressed concerns about the USMS court security program, Mr. Fine said one chief judge was generally dissatisfied with the physical security of the building and expressed concerns over whether adequate security was being provided at entry checkpoints, including the public building entrance, parking garage and judge’s entrance.

In another district, Mr. Fine said the chief judge said that funding and manpower limitations had negatively affected the quality and level of court security; and in a third district, he said the chief judge and his assistant thought that inspections of trucks entering the courthouse were poorly conducted, which jeopardized the safety of the facility.

John F. Clark, director of the Marshals Service, said in a written response to the IG’s report the agency considered concerns outlined in the audit and “agrees that immediate improvement of the court security procurement process is imperative.”

Mr. Clark said that in the past few months, the USMS had “developed and implemented new measures to ensure that selections for future court security procurements are executed in a more judicious manner” and that “corrective actions” undertaken in response to the audit would “improve the USMS procurement process.”

In a detailed response to the audit, the USMS said it would diligently comply with all procurement policies and procedures; would develop programs to ensure that all judicial security inspectors and CSO are adequately trained on newly deployed screening systems; and would ensure that its district offices perform the required quarterly unannounced tests to determine if CSO are adequately screening visitors, packages and mail.

The USMS also said it has developed an internal database to maintain and track records and regularly reviews the results to identify security deficiencies; and would perform a comprehensive review of its background investigation process for court security officers and seek to ensure that these investigations are completed in a timely manner.

According to the IG’s report, the USMS maintains data on arrests and other incidents, such as attempts to bring illegal weapons or contraband into court facilities, bomb threats and assaults. But Mr. Fine said the audit found “inconsistent reporting” by USMS district offices on incidents and arrests at federal court facilities, and little analysis was conducted by the agency’s headquarters on the data it received from the district offices.

“A thorough analysis of this data could allow for better planning in the deployment of screening equipment, building design and staffing,” Mr. Fine said. “Such an analysis also could be valuable to the federal judiciary and ensure that the judiciary is better aware of potential security threats.”

According to the audit, the IG also found that the USMS awarded a $300 million contract to a company that provided court security officers, although the firm had a history of fraudulent activities and had been listed on an earlier fraud alert issued by the Inspector General’s Office. The fraud alert listed multiple fraud convictions and civil judgments against the contractor’s chief financial officer, including criminal convictions for mail fraud, submitting false insurance claims, and bank fraud, as well as six fraud-related civil judgments totaling more than $1.4 million.

“Nevertheless, the USMS awarded the contract to this contractor,” Mr. Fine said. “After receiving the USMS contract, the contractor ultimately filed for bankruptcy, leaving many CSO temporarily without compensation for their services.”

The audit also found that USMS failed to conduct timely background investigations for newly hired CSO or effectively analyze performance violations; that 63 percent of a sample audit of personnel files contained out-of-date medical examination records, 18 percent lacked required firearms qualification records and 47 percent contained outdated firearms qualifications.

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