DHS, GSA tighten acquisition oversight for SBI

Four federal contracting employees have been demoted a pay grade and removed from direct involvement in acquisitions after being accused of mishandling procurements for the nation's $429 million border camera surveillance system.

The disciplinary actions are among steps federal authorities have taken to strengthen procurement oversight at the Homeland Security Department in preparation for the upcoming multibillion-dollar Secure Border Initiative (SBI).

The four General Services Administration senior employees allegedly were among those responsible for squandering millions of dollars on an ineffective Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, which was in effect from 1998 to 2004. The system initially was set up for federal immigration agencies that which were folded into DHS when it was created in 2003.

Federal audits of the surveillance system revealed that payments were made for goods and services never received, contracts were awarded without competitive bidding, only 50 percent of camera installations were completed, and millions of dollars were unspent.

The four employees were downgraded by a single pay level and transferred to non-management jobs, according to James Handley, Great Lakes regional administrator for the GSA, which handled the surveillance system procurement, during testimony at a recent House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing.

A GSA supervisor recommended that the four employees be terminated, but that was overruled by another administrator based on past performance of the employees, Handley said. In addition, two or three other senior federal employees responsible for the problems retired before disciplinary action could be taken, he said.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) called the punishments "a slap on the wrist" considering that as much as $250 million may have been wasted.

"When you look at this unbid contract morphing from a $2 million contract to a $200 million contract [and] ultimately $250 million, with no competitive bidding and nobody getting in trouble for it, and the cameras weren't even put up, you know, it makes you think that, at a minimum, some people would be terminated for that level of incompetence and possible corruption," Rogers said at the hearing.

The administration and the Homeland Security Department have instituted new policies and procedures to strengthen oversight. The GSA now has multiple project review panels to conduct ongoing reviews of projects and requires sign-offs of top officials for all projects over $200,000, Handley said.

"I'm not saying that we weren't negligent, [that] we didn't make a lot of mistakes. But we do have the measures in place now which I think will address a lot of this," Handley said.

DHS has beefed up its procurement monitoring as well, Gregory Giddens, project manager for the Secure Border Initiative, testified at the hearing. For example, the department is setting up a program management plan for SBI.net, which is the technology component of the border surveillance system integrating cameras, sensors and border agents.

The department expects to have the management plan in place before the SBI.net contract is awarded in September. A request for proposals is expected the first week in April, Giddens said.

Asked if the technology component of SBI will be in the multiple billions of dollars, Giddens answered affirmatively, though he declined to state a specific amount. Industry expects peg the cost at around $2 billion.

The department also is inviting in a third party to perform an assessment of the planning process and to advise on the acquisition plan for Secure Border, Giddens said. It also is performing an internal staffing review to provide insight on the best level of contracting staffing to support the activity, he said.

"I have a high degree of confidence that I can assure you we won't have these kinds of problems," Giddens said. "But I don't want to sit here and assure you that we're not going to have some type of problems. This will be a complicated undertaking, and we're going to manage it and work to have the right processes and procedures in place to be good stewards."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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