The Transportation Security Administration is reconsidering its recent decision to arm U.S. commercial airline pilots with German-made Heckler & Koch handguns, only a few days after House Small Business Chairman Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., inquired about the agency's method of choosing a supplier, according to congressional and gun industry sources.
The companies that competed for a three-year, $5 million contract to supply TSA with as many as 9,600 .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols have been told that their bids will be re-evaluated, but the reasons were left unclear, industry sources said. TSA officials told at least one firm they had questions about information the agency used earlier this month to select H&K as the winner.
The questions came from Manzullo, an outspoken advocate of "Buy American" laws to help support U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Aides to the Illinois Republican said he had met last week with TSA officials to learn why the German firearms giant H&K beat other bidders, including American-owned Smith & Wesson and foreign firms, like Beretta, that have manufacturing facilities in the United States.
"We are pleased that the Department of Homeland Security has wisely decided to rebid the handgun contract for the Transportation Safety Administration," Manzullo said Tuesday in a statement. "After our initial meeting, it was obvious that the decision to select Heckler & Koch, a German company with no U.S. manufacturing capability, over American competitors was based on faulty data."
One TSA official initially told the committee staff early last week that H&K would make its firearms in the United States. That contradicted a July 18 CongressDaily news story that quoted company spokesman Steve Galloway as saying all the guns would be made at H&K headquarters in Oberndorf, Germany, and then shipped to a distribution center in Sterling, Va. Galloway, who has said his firm does not have a U.S.-based manufacturing plant, could not be reached Tuesday for further comment.
"It showed us that they [TSA officials] didn't know all the facts," said one House committee aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That was the impetus for the meeting." The contradiction also prompted more questions about how the agency's "source selection committee"-the panel reviewing the bids-chose the winner, the aide said. "Best value isn't always just the price," the aide added. "TSA is going to look at the policy implications [of its contract award] as well."
Manzullo raised a larger concern at the meeting: whether the TSA award to the German firm would influence officials elsewhere in the Homeland Security Department and ultimately cost U.S.-based, firearms manufacturing jobs.
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which includes the enforcement arm of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, will award "a substantial contract" next month to supply handguns to its officers, Manzullo said.
With a contract from TSA-situated in the same division as the immigration and customs agency-Heckler & Koch would be well positioned to win the other contract, which committee aides say could be worth $30 million.
"We expect those procurement officials to strongly consider American companies when making that award," Manzullo said Tuesday.
TSA spokesman Robert Johnson declined to discuss the meeting with Manzullo, except to say, "A decision has been made to reconvene the technical committee ... to go through each bid again."
"It's too early to speculate on what may come of that process," Johnson added.
The decision to re-evaluate the bids is only the latest twist in the agency's effort to buy handguns for the airline pilots who volunteer for the Federal Flight Deck Officer program.
According to several well placed industry sources quoted July 16 by CongressDaily, the agency changed its handgun preferences several times once the program was authorized last November by the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act.
Late last year, TSA initially favored Austrian gun manufacturer Glock, then appeared to bow to pressure from the office of Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., in favor of Arizona-based Smith & Wesson. After Italian gun maker Beretta and other firms protested contract requirements they claimed favored one particular manufacturer, TSA dropped those specifications and opened competition for the handgun contract industry-wide.
Manzullo had considered calling TSA officials to a public hearing after the House reconvenes in September, but for now he will let the process play itself out, aides said.
In May 2001, Manzullo used his prerogative as chairman to convene a hearing on the U.S. Army's $29.6 million contracts to buy 4.8 million black berets, nearly a quarter of which were to be made in China by a British firm.
A few days before the hearing, the Defense Logistics Agency canceled all the contracts involving foreign suppliers.