Subcommittee blasts border work

Lawmakers at a House subcommittee hearing assailed the installation of video surveillance cameras along U.S. borders as a poorly managed, incomplete endeavor that may have wasted millions of dollars.

"What we have here, plain and simple, is a case of gross mismanagement of a federal contract," said Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's management, integration and oversight subcommittee. "Worst of all, it's seriously weakened our border security."

The lawmakers' claims were based on an ongoing General Services Administration investigation looking into how International Microwave's initial $2 million sole-source contract in 1999 ballooned into a $257 million blanket purchase agreement one year later. The bidding process should have been conducted through a fair and open competition, said Joel Gallay, GSA's deputy inspector general.

Gallay said procurement practices employed in this case were "not appropriate or not lawful under the Federal Acquisition Regulations."

Joseph Saponaro, president of L-3 Communications Government Services, which acquired IMC in November 2002, defended the work, saying his company successfully fulfilled the Remote Video Surveillance (RVS) contract installing daytime and nighttime cameras at 246 sites. The contract expired on Sept. 30, 2004, and was not extended.

House members also expressed disappointment that a representative from the Homeland Security Department did not attend despite making repeated requests for someone to testify, they said. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff had indicated last week that his comprehensive review of the department will be completed in a month.

But members were clearly dismayed at what they heard yesterday and said they will hold more hearings about the issue as well as the upcoming America’s Shield Initiative (ASI), a proposed $2.5 billion project to modernize Border Patrol surveillance operations through the use of cutting edge technology.

In December 2004, GSA released a nationwide audit, sampling more than 300 task orders awarded by GSA's Federal Technology Service (FTS), including 13 that related to the RVS contract. FTS awarded and administered the video surveillance contract on behalf of the U.S. Border Patrol. Those 13 task orders, which were valued at $43.4 million, included installation of cameras mounted on poles, construction of towers for microwave transmission equipment, monitoring equipment installation and provision of a maintenance and repair facility.

In its audit, Gallay said that GSA found none of the eight RVS installations reviewed during the summer of 2004 had fully operational systems. "At some locations, no equipment had been installed, and at others, problems with the equipment installed to data have rendered the system incomplete and unreliable," he said.

"The RVS effort was in many respects, a major project gone awry," he said later.

But Saponaro said that work on four of the eight sites had been completed. The other four sites were not completed because the Border Patrol had to provide environmental clearances and other land actions, he added. In that case, the agency was only billed for equipment and other costs.

He added that his company never got the chance to comment on the audit and didn’t even know the report was being produced. The first time they saw it was two weeks before it was released publicly. Gallay said this was an internal audit report and it was provided to FTS management to give them input. He added it would not have been difficult for an outside contractor to get a copy of the report.

Gallay said everyone involved -- FTS, the Border Patrol, and L-3 -- was to blame for the problems with the RVS project. He said GSA’s ongoing investigation has resulted in "proposed removal actions" being pursued against several FTS contracting agents. He added that his office is also coordinating with DHS inspector general's office and the FBI, but stopped short of saying whether they were pursuing a criminal investigation.

House lawmakers said the hearing was timely since the Border Patrol in gearing up to award ASI.

ASI is essentially an upgrade of the agency’s Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, which agency officials have maintained is aging and inadequate. The project could potentially cost upwards to $2.5 billion to cover 6,000 miles of border. The Border Patrol conducted an industry day last August to define the scope of the project and could award it later this year.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who is chairman of the full committee, said the $2.5 billion is perhaps a justifiable amount to cover the borders, but it's significant nonetheless.

Greg Pellegrino, global managing director for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu's public sector practice, said the government is beginning to train program managers that can deal with complex projects such as ASI.

"Government needs to make it a priority to develop the corps of modern managers skilled in the complex and essential task of building links and reaching out beyond the public sector to whomever can serve the interests of the taxpayer," he said in his testimony.

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