Homeland Security officials and House lawmaker pledge to fix flawed system for paying contract guards.
The head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau announced Tuesday that the agency will reform a "chaotic" invoicing system that has left the government nearly $8 million in debt to private security contractors.
ICE owes the money to about 21 contract guard vendors, said Julie Myers, the agency's assistant secretary. The agency plans to review its entire backlog of unpaid invoices by Aug. 3, and to pay any debts the week after that, she said. Myers said most of the payment problems arose with older contracts for guards hired in the Washington, D.C., area.
Myers said ICE already had centralized its invoicing system, resolved some of its outstanding debts and appointed an ombudsman to oversee invoices and "liaison with contractors." The agency hopes to prevent future problems through training that will enforce a "customer service mentality" among federal agents who handle invoices, she said.
The announcement came on the heels of several congressional hearings about contract guards, and a week after several capital area guards walked out of the job because they hadn't been paid.
At Tuesday's press conference on the reforms, Robert Jenkins, owner of Washington, D.C.-based Jenkins Security Consultants, downplayed news of the walkout, saying "I don't like to talk about these things." He said the company resorted to emergency staffing to maintain security during the walkout.
Jenkins lauded the government for addressing the problem. "We are beginning to get some action," he said. "Back invoices are being taken care of."
But the head of another company said the government had not made enough progress. Keith Howard, who owned Area-Wide Electronic Solutions Inc. in Maryland, also attended the press conference as a spectator. At the end, he stood up and claimed that his business was driven into bankruptcy because the government did not pay him money it owed him.
"I am devastated," Howard said. "I am asking for your help." Myers said the situation would be taken care of.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who co-hosted the conference, lauded ICE's actions. "Small businesses go out of business all the time," Norton said. "Our job is to make sure they don't go out of business at the fault of the federal government."
She also announced that she will file a bill prohibiting the Federal Protective Service -- the arm of ICE responsible for securing government facilities -- from contracting with guard companies owned or controlled by people with felony convictions.
Holmes' bill addresses security concerns that arose when FPS contracted with Systems Training and Research Technologies (STARTECH), a guard service whose vice president for business development, Weldon Waites, had been convicted of money laundering and fraud. Witnesses at a hearing in late June said Waites' financial mismanagement kept the company from making payroll. The government has since terminated its contract with STARTECH.
"This was a loophole in existing law," Norton said. "We just gotta close the loophole, and that will take care of the future."
Norton said that contracting with businesses whose managers have a history of ethics violations could put the nation's security at risk and increase payroll problems at poorly managed businesses. She said ICE's reforms combined with her bill would bring about fairness for security contractors.
Contract security guards Norton said, "are as essential to protecting federal employees and sites as members of the FPS."