Recruitment costs questioned

TSA, Pearson dispute charge of wasteful spending

The Transportation Security Administration and Pearson Government Solutions, which recruited thousands of airport passenger screeners for the agency, have come under fire following a report that Pearson recruiters indulged in posh -- and unnecessary -- accommodations at a resort in Colorado. TSA and Pearson officials vigorously disputed the charges.

In a March 12 letter, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked TSA Administrator James Loy to have the agency's inspector general investigate allegations that TSA "spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in Telluride, Colo., last summer on a single recruiting trip for security screeners that yielded very few results."

The senators charged that TSA sent 20 recruiters to Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa, "where the most inexpensive luxury room for a comparable time period in 2003 runs from $259 to $339 per night," for seven weeks to recruit 50 screeners.

The resort "is so isolated from working population centers, and the effort was so poorly publicized, that in some cases only one or two potential recruits came in per day," the senators wrote.

The senators began looking into the contract after reading a story about the costly stay at Telluride in the Oct. 30, 2002, Wall Street Journal.

But TSA Spokeswoman Heather Rosenker disputed some of the facts in the story and the implication that using the Wyndham facility was an expensive indulgence.

"We stand 100 percent behind the decisions that were made," she said.

The TSA contract originally called for Pearson to recruit and hire federal airport screeners from March to December 2002. The contract had a price tag of $104 million, but a Jan. 21 report by the Transportation Department inspector general said the project cost closer to $700 million by the time it was completed. At a Feb. 5 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the agency came under fire from senators and Transportation IG Kenneth Mead for the cost overruns.

Pearson Government Solutions, formerly known as NCS Pearson, is a subsidiary of Pearson Inc., a provider of applications, services and technologies for education, commercial and government customers based in Eden Prairie, Minn. Pearson Inc. is part of Pearson plc, the British media and education company.

The senators' letter singles out the management of one of about 150 local assessment centers the company set up across the country to recruit screeners for more than 400 airports.

The Wyndham resort "was the only available facility with the connectivity and availability of space," Rosenker said. "We looked into hotels in Durango, Farmington and Cortez, and they either didn't have the availability, the space or the connectivity."

Numerous factors went into the decision to put the recruitment center at the Wyndham, said both Rosenker and Dan Mullaney, deputy operations manager on the project for Pearson.

The recruitment process for candidates involved numerous assessments, Mullaney said, including medical and eye examinations, drug screening, physical fitness tests, computer tests and background screenings to rule out security risks. Space also was needed for face-to-face interviews.

"A lot of the data [we gathered] fell under the Privacy Protection Act, so we had to go into a space where we could build a secure LAN-WAN network," Mullaney said. "This assessment [center] handled applications for five different airports in the Colorado-New Mexico area. We tried to locate them all, so nobody had to drive more than two hours."

The Wyndham facility was the only one in the area with the technological capability, security and space availability to handle the task, he said. The recruiters were given the federal government room rate of $147 per night, and they stayed at the resort and operated the assessment center for five weeks, Mullaney said.

Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Dorgan, said the senators were aware the recruiters got a government room rate. The senators' reference to the higher-priced rates for the general public was to give an idea to taxpayers of just how nice the accommodations are, he said.

Mullaney said the recruiters hired 50 screeners, as the TSA had specified, but to find them, the recruiters sorted through more than 1,400 applicants and winnowed them down to about 300 candidates who went through all the assessment stages. An unknown number of candidates also were placed in a "ready pool," having successfully completed the entire recruitment process. These candidates are available as potential replacements.

"People need to remember a couple of things about this process," Rosenker said. "There's no recipe for this. There's nothing to base what this should look like or cost. Smart people made the best decisions about how to accomplish what needed to be accomplished. ... In both the long run and the short run, the process that TSA and Pearson adopted was really the best use of taxpayer dollars."

"I'm not going to speculate as to why [the senators] are doing this. We're just very proud of the job that we did for TSA last year," said Steve Kingsley, vice president of government relations for Pearson Inc. "With a program of this size [and visibility], Congress is going to have questions about it. We stand ready, as does TSA, to respond to any questions they may have."

An audit of the contract is under way by the Defense Contract Audit Agency. Piatt said he had not been aware that an audit was already being conducted. As of March 17, Piatt said, the TSA administrator had not yet responded to the senators' request.

"We've attempted to call [Loy's office]," Piatt said. "We mostly get a voice mail when we call them." *

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com.

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