ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
Charges of wasteful spending and lax management are not new to the Department of Homeland Security. There have been problems with airport security screeners, as well as fraud and abuse in the clean-up after Hurricane Katrina. Now for the first time a Congressional panel has looked at the big picture at the Department. It's found more than $34 billion in contracts where there have been significant overcharges, wasteful spending or mismanagement.
NPR's Brian Naylor has the story.
BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:
The report by the House Government Reform Committee found a number of problem areas in the awarding and oversight of contracts by the Department of Homeland Security. One big problem is the awarding of contracts without competitive bidding. The report says $5.5 billion of such contracts were awarded last year. Congressman Henry Waxman of California is the senior Democrat on the panel.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): It just seems to invite, through no competition, excessively high contract spending without getting the results we need, which is saving the taxpayers money and making us more secure.
NAYLOR: The report cites numerous examples of poor contract planning and contract oversight, some of which pre-date the department. The Transportation Security Administration, for instance, was formed before, but later absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security.
Audits found exorbitant spending by the company TSA contracted to hire airport screeners on items such as luxury hotels and long distance phone charges. Waxman points to another contract for radiation portal monitors which were meant to screen cargo containers at sea ports for possible dirty bombs.
Representative WAXMAN: They ended up with such a sensitive detector that they couldn't distinguish between radiation that might have come from weapons grade nuclear material and natural emitting radioactivity, including cat litter, granite, porcelain toilets and bananas. It really is quite worthless.
NAYLOR: Elaine Duke, chief procurement officer at DHS, says the next generation of radiation portal monitors coming online has improved technology better able to discern a nuclear threat from background radiation. She says when contracts are not put out for competitive bidding, there's a reason.
Ms. ELAINE DUKE (Department of Homeland Security): We do strive for competition wherever possible. Where there is urgency or only one source or some type of national security, we do have the ability to award on a sole source basis, but that is by exception.
NAYLOR: The Department also points out that it's still a relatively new agency having to absorb 22 bureaucracies and functions after the 9/11 attacks, but critics such as Keith Ashdown, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, say that explanation is starting to wear thin.
Mr. KEITH ASHDOWN (Taxpayers for Common Sense): We don't need an agency that's learning to walk now. We need an agency that knows how to run and that knows how to protect this nation.
NAYLOR: Duke, the department's chief procurement officer, says the department is doing a better job of contract oversight and has little choice but to rely on contracts with the private sector to meet homeland security needs.
Ms. DUKE: We are a department that relies heavily on industry to deliver our mission solutions and that's why we have so much money in contracts, about $17 billion last year, because in each one of the parts of DHS we use industry solutions. But in terms of national security and homeland security, the department has made great strides. I'm very confident in that.
NAYLOR: Critics, though, wonder whether those strides are coming fast enough to keep up with the department's increased spending.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capital.
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