DHS' Cohen made questionable picks on research projects, IG says

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DHS IG report

Homeland Security Department Undersecretary Adm. Jay Cohen selected three research projects for the department in fiscal 2007 that initially appeared to reflect a personal bias, but upon review his actions were deemed acceptable, according to a new report from the department’s inspector general, Richard Skinner.

Cohen, who leads the Science and Technology Directorate, accepted three research projects suggested by business acquaintances from his tenure as chief of naval research, each of whom sought funding to conduct the work, the report states.

The inspector general said he reviewed the three selections and determined that although they initially may have appeared to be unfair, they were made for legitimate reasons. Two of the selected projects received funding.

“We concluded that the Under Secretary did not select these or any other projects in order to award project funding later to certain industry members,” the report states. “However, the method by which the projects were selected was not documented and the selection criteria were not clear, which cast initial doubt on the fairness of the selection of the three projects.”

Cohen, in a response to the draft version of the report, objected to the “unnecessary discussion of unfounded ‘ethical concerns’” raised by the inspector general. “I do not agree with your assertion that the project selection lacked objectivity or fairness,” Cohen wrote.

Skinner’s 51-page report provides an overview of how the Science and Technology Directorate has centralized how it selects and prioritizes its research since Cohen took the helm in August 2006. Previously, a key member of Congress had criticized the directorate as a "rudderless ship."

The new centralized process has resulted in improvements in program and fiscal oversight, improved coordination, and greater incorporation of the needs of other DHS components and constituents, with the possible exception of first responders due to decentralized recommendations for that group, the report said.

However, the new processes still are vague and lack documentation. This leaves the directorate vulnerable to claims of real or perceived conflicts of interest, Skinner wrote.

Skinner recommended that first responder needs be reviewed and criteria for project selections be developed and documented. He also advised some changes in authority in the directorate.

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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