Yesterday there were congressional hearings that highlighted the privatization of the war on terror - but not in Iraq, here on the homefront. The hearing focused on two companies, Wackenhut Services Inc. (WSI) and Bechtel.
The title of the hearing said it all: Federal Contracting: Do Poor Performers Keep Winning? The answer appears to be yes.
Filmmaker Robert Greenwald exposed the connections between private corporations making a killing in Iraq and those in power in Washington who reward them with lucrative contracts in his recent film Iraq For Sale. But as yesterday's hearing showed, the same thing is happening right here.
Congressman Ed Towns (D-NY) chaired the hearing. He wanted to know why a company that has a record of endangering public safety like Wackenhut keeps getting federal contracts paid for by taxpayers' money to guard critical installations like nuclear facilities and ammunitions plants.
Former Wackenhut employee Robin Smith told the committee about her experiences working at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Robin understands security. When she was in the Air Force, she achieved the rank of Airman First Class with a Sharpshooter badge and was one of 125 women selected for an Air Force test program to receive combat training. Her specialty included guarding aircraft on alert with nuclear weapons for the Strategic Air Command.
Yet while working for Wackenhut at the DHS, she saw up close how lax scrutiny over federal contracts means less safety on the homefront. Robin talked about how the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to be overseeing our national safety, is itself not safe. She revealed poor security at the DHS, lack of training, careless weapons handling, inadequate equipment for the officers, ignored alarms, open posts, failed security tests, security breaches, falsified documents, and irresponsible handling of a hazardous substance attack.
Remember the Anthrax scare in Washington? Well, in 2005, a suspicious letter was sent to the DHS headquarters. When an employee opened the letter, white powder spilled out. Here's how Robin described it: "[They] observed and handled the envelope from all angles. They didn't evacuate the section. The ventilation system was still on, which could easily have carried particles of the white powder to other sections of the building. The building was evacuated only when the Federal Protective Services arrived at the very late stages of the discovery."
This company's track record is bad across the board. Recent news stories in a Tennessee paper alleged that firefighting and security contract workers at the Holston Army Ammunitions Plant (the largest facility in the country making high capacity explosives) have been shorted more than $3 million in pay since 1999.
As if that's not enough, since 1999 Wackenhut has provided security at the Department of Energy (DOE)'s Y-12 nuclear weapons plant and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. DOE Inspector General and press reports portray a contractor there who under staffs the facility, forces officers to work persistent and excessive overtime, and has resorted to cheating and falsification of records to keep up the appearance of acceptable performance. Other reports of security lapses include discharging of live ammunition during weapons tests and security problems at a number of the national nuclear security administration sites that Wackenhut guards.
But it's not just our national security and nuclear infrastructure that this company is endangering. They are also putting our public safety at risk in key cities like Miami, Florida, where they get county funds to guard the transportation system.
NBC6, a Miami television station, has been running a series about allegations that Wackenhut billed Miami-Dade County taxpayers for work that was never done. Wackenhut may owe the County as much as $12.1 million for taxpayer fraud. (You can read all about these incidents and more on the website eyeonwackenhut.org).
So, what can we do to tame this corporate excess? Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), a member of the Congressional Subcommittee, just introduced HR 3033, new legislation that calls for careful oversight of who gets government contracts and potential exclusion of those who abuse the public trust from government work.
Wackenhut, which does around a half a billion dollars of business a year with the U.S. government, is the domestic Halliburton. It's about time that Congress reins it in.
Contact your congressperson and tell them to support the Maloney bill and to investigate whether Wackenhut Services Inc. should be debarred from federal contracts. Tell them to stop corporations like Wackenhut from profiteering with our safety and our tax dollars.