- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2011

Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Monday withdrew a lucrative security contract that included a local firm headed by a longtime associate, citing D.C. Council concerns about employment practices.

The action was prompted by a labor union that patrols District buildings.

“While the vendor has satisfied its contractual obligations to the District, several Councilmembers have expressed reservations about its employment practices,” wrote Mr. Gray, in a letter to Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown.

The Gray administration did not respond to questions about whether it would be rebidding the contract, worth more than $18 million, currently held by U.S. Security Associates (USSA).

Last August, all 13 council members, including then-Chairman Gray, accused USSA of “putting the safety of our city and residents at risk,” and urged the city to “not allow this company to continue benefiting from taxpayer-funded multimillion-dollar contracts.”

Yet until late in the day on Monday, the Gray administration had urged council approval of the contract. Sources close to the negotiations said Frederick D. Cooke Jr., a friend of Mr. Gray’s who represents the firm — in addition to at least two Gray allies on the council under federal investigation — also lobbied the council.

Mr. Cooke did not return a call for comment.

Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ has for months been urging the council to resist Mr. Gray. The union has accused the mayor of “hiding” USSA’s spotty record of employee discrimination and weapons penetration test violations.

“Mayor Gray is now breaking his promise to stop the scandals by rewarding this same irresponsible contractor with taxpayer funded multimillion-dollar contracts,” said SEIU Vice President Valarie Long on Monday, shortly before the Gray administration withdrew its request.

In addition to previous concerns about USSA voiced by Mr. Gray and his former council colleagues, Watkins Security Services, a local partner whose president Richard Hamilton Sr. is an associate of Mr. Gray’s, was dismissed by the District in 2005 for performance problems and damning audits. But the firm returned in 2009 as a partner of USSA.

In May, D.C. Council members Phil Mendelson and Mary Cheh lambasted James D. Staton Jr., acting chief of the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement (OCP), for failing to address council concerns in a timely manner. Mr. Mendelson’s office said Monday it was still waiting for answers.

The contract has been in place for the past year despite a D.C. law that requires council approval for all contracts over $1 million.

In a May 6 letter to Mr. Mendelson, USSA stated that it has “passed each and every penetration test” at the relevant District sites since December 2010.

But D.C.’s Department of Real Estate Services documents show that USSA was fined for three weapons penetration test failures on May 5, including one at a site guarded by Watkins Security. SEIU claims that USSA is responsible for16 penetration test failures and has been slapped with more than 75 fines for contract violations and testing failures since August 2009.

The labor union also accuses OCP of withholding from the council information about discrimination and sexual harassment suits that resulted in more than $4 million in one year for judgments and consent orders arising from sexual harassment and worker retaliation suits.

In a 2010 federal court case in Alabama, in which USSA was hit with more than $1 million in damages, a company vice president testified that she ordered background checks of female employees who complained of harassment. In criticizing the firm, a federal judge remarked: “The reprehensible conduct in this case went all the way up the corporate ladder.”

The vice president, Tia Johnson-Waller, was promoted by USSA and is now vice president and general manager for Washington, Maryland, and Virginia.

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