Saturday, October 28, 2006

House Investigators: Hastert's Office Hindered Corruption Probe
Investigators Say Speaker’s Aide Hindered Inquiry of Hill Security Contracts
By Steven T. Dennis, CQ Staff

Two former House committee investigators who were examining Capitol Hill security upgrades said a senior aide to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert hindered their efforts before they were abruptly ordered to stop their probe last year.

The former Appropriations Committee investigators said Ted Van Der Meid, Hastert’s chief counsel, resisted from the start the inquiry, which began with concerns about mismanagement of a secret security office and later probed allegations of bid-rigging and kickbacks from contractors to a Defense Department employee.

Ronald Garant and a second Appropriations Committee investigator who asked not to be identified said Van Der Meid engaged in “screaming matches” with investigators and told at least one aide not to talk to them. Van Der Meid also prohibited investigators from visiting certain sites to check up on the effectiveness of the work, the investigators said.

Van Der Meid oversaw Capitol security upgrades for Hastert, R-Ill., and worked closely with the office that was charged with implementing them, the investigators said.

K. Lee Blalack, a lawyer for Van Der Meid, said Friday that neither he nor Van Der Meid would comment on the matter.

John Scofield, a spokesman for the Appropriations Committee, said the former investigators were taken off of the investigation, but denied that it was terminated.

“Nothing has been closed down on this study,” Scofield said. “It is a pending study.”

Scofield said it was a case of “sour grapes” because the investigators’ contracts were not renewed. He also said the case was assigned to more senior staff, whom he declined to identify.

The inquiry began in late 2003 or early 2004 and was authorized by former Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., and the panel’s top Democrat, David R. Obey of Wisconsin. The probe focused on the office entrusted with ensuring continuity of Congress in the event of a terrorist or other attack. That office had grown from a sleepy Cold War relic to one that was spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on numerous security upgrades on and off Capitol Hill in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes and anthrax attacks the following month.

The investigation was carried out by members of the Appropriations panel’s Surveys and Investigations team, which looks into charges of waste and abuse.

Robert Pearre, the team’s director, ordered the investigators to stop their work on the security contracts in the fall of 2005. Before that, the investigators said they were looking into allegations that security contractors had showered a Defense Department employee with kickbacks in the form of Redskins tickets, golf outings, a set of golf clubs and meals. The allegations of kickbacks did not implicate congressional aides.

The investigators also said they were looking into concerns expressed by contractors that some of the security upgrades would fail to work in the event of a terrorist attack.

The office in charge of the upgrades was funded through the Defense Department and overseen by the Capitol Police Board, but the Speaker’s office took a lead role because of Hastert’s status as third in line to the presidency, the investigators said.

According to the investigators, Van Der Meid sought to stop their investigation shortly after it began.

“We got called into his office,” said Garant, who served previously in the Defense Department’s Comptroller’s Office before becoming an investigator for the Appropriations Committee. Van Der Meid shouted at them, Garant said: “What the [expletive] are you looking at this for? . . . He wanted to shut the operation down right then and there.”

According to the investigators, Van Der Meid was reluctantly persuaded to allow the inquiry into the security upgrades to go forward but continually hindered the investigators’ work.

“They had resisted all along,” the other investigator said about the Speaker’s office. Nonetheless the investigator said he was “stunned” when the inquiry was shelved about a year ago. Pearre, a former FBI agent, had strongly backed the inquiry until shortly before he ordered them to stop their work on it.

The order was “get out of there by sundown,” Garant said, referring to the secure offices they had used for the probe because of its sensitive nature.

Garant said the investigators believed that the Speaker’s office had successfully pressured appropriators to stop their inquiry. “From our perspective it was obvious. . . . The only people who would give a [expletive] was the Speaker’s office because this was an organization very close to them.”

Scofield said that neither Van Der Meid nor the Speaker’s office had ordered that the investigation be shut down.

Rob Nabors, the committee Democratic staff director, declined through a spokeswoman to comment for this story.

Lisa C. Miller, a spokeswoman for Hastert’s office, would not comment directly on Van Der Meid’s role in the investigation. “What I can tell you is what John Scofield has told you is what I know to be true,” she said. “Beyond that, everything else is highly classified.”

The investigation was launched under Young, who had a rocky relationship with House leaders, after the secret continuity office failed to spend more than $100 million before the appropriations expired, prompting an urgent and tardy request to have the money re-appropriated just as another Defense spending bill was being finalized.

The committee and its staff had to scramble to find room in the budget, and launched its investigation of the office.

Young said he does not recall the details surrounding the start of the inquiry.

The former Appropriations chairman said that after the Sept. 11 attacks his panel initially oversaw improvements to the Capitol Hill campus, including protective coatings that were added to windows to reduce the potential damage from a truck bomb. At some point, oversight of upgrades was taken over by House leadership, Young said.

“We were in effect put out of the process by the leadership office,” Young said. “The last two years of my chairmanship they basically cut me out of the loop.”

By the time the investigators said they were ordered to drop their work, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., had taken over as Appropriations chairman amid expectations by House GOP leaders that he would be more of a team player than Young.

Unsuccessful bidders were the source of some, but not all, of the allegations of problems with the security contracts.

One would-be vendor complained that bid requests drawn up by the Army Corps of Engineers were drafted in such a way that only one contractor would be eligible for the work, Garant said.

“You don’t know how much of it was sour grapes and how much of it was real, but there was enough of it that you started to think there was something here,” Garant said.

Investigators said that in addition to allegations of bid-rigging and kickbacks, they were looking into allegations that some security upgrades would fail to work.

“The word was that what they were trying to do was physically or technically impossible to do but that they were spending a heck of a lot of money trying to do it,” said Garant.

The other investigator said he was told that “people are going to die” because the upgrades would fail to do the job.

“That whole organization was very, very secret and very few people even knew that it existed, but it was a great dispenser of money,” said Garant, who was dismissed in March from his position as a contract investigator.

The Appropriations Committee’s investigation team, formed in 1943, has been in turmoil for several years. The upheaval culminated last week in Chairman Lewis’ decision to dismiss all 60 remaining contractors on the investigative staff, which included many retired investigators from the FBI, CIA and other government agencies. A permanent staff of 16 remains.

Scofield said last week that the contractors’ dismissals were part of a “bipartisan review” of the staff, and said the staff’s work recently “has not been that good.”

Committee Democrats have not commented on the dismissals.