Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Ex-official tells of Homeland Security failures

Ex-official tells of Homeland Security failures

Tue Dec 28, 7:11 AM ET

By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY

The government agency responsible for protecting the nation against terrorist attack is a dysfunctional, poorly managed bureaucracy that has failed to plug serious holes in the nation's safety net, the Department of Homeland Security's former internal watchdog warns.

Clark Kent Ervin, who served as the department's inspector general until earlier this month, said in an interview last week that airport security isn't tight enough and that little has been done to safeguard other forms of mass transit. Ervin said ports remain vulnerable to terrorists trying to smuggle weapons into the country. He added that immigration and customs investigators are hampered in their efforts to track down illegal immigrants because they often lack gas money for their cars.

"There are still all these security gaps in the country that have yet to be closed," Ervin said. Meanwhile, he added, Homeland Security officials have wasted millions of dollars because of "chaotic and disorganized" accounting practices, lavish spending on social occasions and employee bonuses and a failure to require competitive bidding for some projects.

Asked what's wrong with the department, he said, "It's difficult to figure out where to start."

Ervin lost his job this month in mysterious fashion. Appointed by President Bush in December 2003 when Congress was out of session, Ervin was never confirmed by the Senate. Nor was he renominated by the White House this month when his "recess appointment" - which lasted until the congressional session ended - expired Dec. 8.

A key senator won't say why. Elissa Davidson, spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wouldn't comment on why Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, never held confirmation hearings for Ervin. "The decision not to renominate Clark Kent Ervin was purely a White House decision," she said.

Asked whether Ervin might be renominated, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Dec. 17, "I don't get into speculating about who might be nominated." He noted that Ervin's term had expired and said, "We appreciate the job he has done."

Government watchdog groups complained when Ervin had to go. "Homeland Security Superman Canned," read the headline on a press release from the non-profit Project on Government Oversight. (Ervin got his name from his older brother, who urged their parents to name him after the superhero's cover, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.)

Danielle Brian, the group's director, said Ervin was a standout among inspectors general, who operate inside every government department to investigate waste, fraud and mismanagement. Brian called Ervin an "aggressive overseer" of the new department and said it was crucial to have someone like him in the job because "Congress is absolutely asleep at the wheel when it comes to oversight."

In response to Ervin's criticism, Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said, "The department acknowledges the efforts and good intentions of the former inspector general to put forth recommendations to improve the nation's security."

While in office, Ervin made some scathing findings. He reported that:

• Undercover investigators were able to sneak explosives and weapons past security screeners at 15 airports during tests in 2003.

• Federal air marshals, hired to provide a last line of defense against terrorists on airlines, slept on the job, tested positive for alcohol or drugs while on duty, lost their weapons and falsified information in 2002.

• Department leaders should have taken a more aggressive role in efforts to combine the government's myriad terrorist watch lists since the department was created in 2003.

• The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) gave executive bonuses of $16,477 to 88 of its 116 senior managers in 2003, an amount one-third higher than the bonuses given to executives at any other federal agency.

• The TSA spent nearly $500,000 on an awards banquet for employees in November 2003. The cost included $1,500 for three cheese displays and $3.75 for each soft drink.

The department complained that many of Ervin's reports were based on outdated information. After the report on air marshals, border and transportation chief Asa Hutchinson said the problems had long since been fixed.

Ervin, a Harvard-trained lawyer who worked for Bush when he was governor of Texas and for Bush's father in the White House before that, couldn't explain why he didn't get the nod to continue his work. It "will be an enduring mystery to me," he said.

Ervin added that he plans to work as a Homeland Security consultant next year and write a book while keeping tabs on what happens at the department, which will have a major turnover in senior management.

For the person Bush selects to replace outgoing Secretary Tom Ridge, "the biggest challenge will be getting his or her arms around a huge, dysfunctional bureaucracy," Ervin said.

On that subject, he had a final word of advice for Bush: "There hasn't been the management expertise and experience needed to integrate and effectively organize a huge bureaucratic challenge. Ideally, you need someone who's got corporate experience."