More than two weeks ago, committee staff asked for a copy of a contract that the department's Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement awarded without competition to Simeone Associates Inc., based in Albany, N.Y.
According to committee aides, the president of the company, Ronald Simeone, appears to be a friend and former colleague of a senior official in the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement, Scott Chronister.
Simeone and Chronister did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
The contract is valued at a relatively small amount -- $578,921 -- but the way the department has handled inquiries from committee aides has piqued their concern.
According to an aide, Homeland Security officials said a written request would have to be made from House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., to obtain a copy of the contract, otherwise the department would treat the request as if it were a Freedom of Information Act request.
The aide refused to comply on principle. "They treated a congressional oversight committee as if we were a FOIA request," the aide said. "It's easy enough for me to write a letter and have it signed by the boss and send it. That wasn't why we didn't send a letter. It's because we don't accept their requirements."
Late Tuesday, the department sent aides a redacted version of the contract. The redacted copy blots out most references to line-item dollar amounts, as well as the name of some officials, according to a copy reviewed by CongressDaily.
The contract is described as being for "development of a strategic plan and performance measurement system."
A Homeland Security spokesman told CongressDaily "the executive branch recognizes a distinction between requests made by the chair [of a committee] and requests made by ranking members or other members of Congress.
"This is based on a December 5, 2001 opinion by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel that addresses this distinction," the spokesman added. "Requests from Congress in its official capacity are requests by the chairs of committees and/or subcommittees, not staff. To do otherwise would diminish the authority of the chair and result in a situation where staff, or all members, are equal to the chair."
Thompson briefly questioned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the issue during a hearing Wednesday.
"As Secretary Chertoff himself acknowledged today, it should go without saying that when committee staff makes requests from the department, they speak for me," Thompson said after the hearing. "But instead of fulfilling a simple request, we have been met with demands that the Congress comply with the department's internal policies and a blizzard of ever-changing and unacceptable excuses.
"Frankly, when routine requests are met with an avalanche of objections, I get suspicious," Thompson added.
The committee aide said the panel wants to know who made the decision to redact the contract. The aide added that an investigation is also being launched into how the department handles FOIA requests.