Contractors take over security jobs at Agriculture facility

Lawmakers and a federal employee union have requested an investigation into the Agriculture Department's decision to outsource security work at a Maryland research facility.

Private security guards have begun working at an Agriculture Department research facility in the Washington area, despite protests from a federal employee union and two senators. The union and lawmakers have requested an investigation of Agriculture's decision to outsource the security work.

Guards from Metropolitan Protective Service Inc., a minority- and women-owned business based in Landover Hills, Md., this week started working alongside the federal employees who until now have protected the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, a 7,000-acre government facility in a northeast suburb of Washington, from property damage and other criminal activity. By April 4, 2004, the contract employees will replace all remaining federal security guards at the Maryland research facility.

Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., have asked the Agriculture Department to halt the transition until the department's inspector general has a chance to investigate whether Agriculture gave federal employees involved in the public-private competition for 24 security positions a fair chance to defend their jobs.

The American Federation of Government Employees has claimed that that Agriculture conducted a biased competition, overestimated the cost of keeping the current guards and did not give adequate consideration to the security implications of outsourcing the work.

"While we understand the need to deliver best value for government services, we also believe that any competition for federal jobs should be fair, transparent and, ultimately, must demonstrate real cost savings without hindering the critical work done at government installations," Mikulski and Sarbanes wrote in March 12 letters to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong.

The senators asked Fong to investigate union claims that Agriculture officials overstated the cost of keeping security work in-house and used the "inflated" estimate to justify outsourcing guard jobs. Fong has not yet replied, said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sarbanes.

In late October 2003, Agriculture officially announced a decision to replace federal security guards at the Beltsville research facility with contractors. Through a streamlined public-private competition, department officials determined that they could save money by hiring a contractor.

But union representatives and a federal security officer who lost his job in the competition argued that Agriculture officials were set on outsourcing the guard jobs long before October 2003. At a May 8, 2003, meeting, Phyllis Johnson, director of the Maryland research facility, allegedly told security officers they would lose their jobs to contractors in a "direct conversion," a process where agencies outsource work to private companies without holding a competition. The union claims Johnson referred to her decision as a "done deal."

Agriculture dropped plans for the direct conversion in June, shortly after the Office of Management and Budget revised Circular A-76, the rule book on running public-private competitions. OMB's updated guidelines do not allow direct conversions unless agencies obtain permission from the administration. Pursuant to the new rules, the Agriculture Research Service on June 27, 2003, announced a streamlined public-private competition for the security jobs.

In this competition, agency officials estimated the cost of keeping the security work in-house and compared that to the expense of hiring a private company. The federal security workers did not reorganize themselves into a "most efficient organization" and submit a bid on the work. Officials instead based the cost estimate on the work as performed at the time of the study.

This approach falls within OMB's rules for streamlined competitions -- those involving fewer than 65 jobs. But AFGE claims department officials were determined to outsource the security work and did not make a good faith effort to produce an accurate estimate of the cost of keeping federal guards.

For instance, the department included salaries for 24 security workers in the in-house cost estimate, AFGE President John Gage claimed in correspondence with the Maryland senators. The Beltsville research facility is currently staffed at well below that level, the union argued, and has rarely, if ever, employed 24 security officers.

An Agriculture Department spokeswoman declined to offer a response to AFGE's criticisms.

Following the May 2003 announcement of Agriculture's intent to conduct a direct conversion, some of the federal security workers left for other jobs, according to the union. There are currently about 11 left in Beltsville, said Vallie Bray, president of AFGE Local 3147 in Beltsville. The research facility has hired several temporary contractors to pick up some of the slack, but these contractors did not fully replace all the employees who left, according to AFGE officials.

Most of the temporary contractors focused on securing buildings, leaving the equipment on the research facilities' vast grounds susceptible to vandalism and theft, said Sgt. Larry Johnson, a security supervisor who has worked at Beltsville for 20 years. Since May 2003, the facility has experienced an increase in property thefts, including tires off government vehicles, Johnson said. This rise is partly attributable to leaner security services staffing, he said.

But according to Sandy Hays, a spokeswoman for the Agricultural Research Service, the facility employs 24 security workers. Not all are guards, she said. Some fill administrative or supervisory positions. She declined to provide an accounting of how many of the 24 positions were filled by temporary contract workers or how many federal security guards left since May 2003.

The Beltsville research facility has not suffered from any rise in crime due to understaffing, Hays insisted. She also said that contract security guards would have the same authorities as the federal guards. Neither the contractors nor the federal guards act as police officers. When a serious crime or traffic accident occurs on the Beltsville grounds, guards must call in the Park Police to handle the situation, she said.

In correspondence with the Maryland senators, AFGE officials also charged that: "Potential security risks run the gamut -- from kids looking for drugs to animal rights activists eager to liberate subjects, to terrorists determined to snatch agents for biological warfare."

Johnson noted that the research facility has large, wooded areas and is surrounded by populated areas, making the grounds an enticing target for crime. One murder took place on the facility about two years ago, he said, and the guards have come across several bodies dumped on the grounds. Animal rights activists also have caused occasional disruptions, he said.

Federal security guards are better equipped to handle emergencies, Bray and Johnson said. The contract guards will not carry individual weapons, but will have access to two shotguns, they said. Hays could not confirm this.

Agriculture's Beltsville facility is located in a populated region intersected by several major roads, allowing the public easy access to some of the grounds, Hays confirmed. But scientists at the center research animal nutrition, dairy production, plant diseases and similar topics, Hays said. They handle plant pathogens, but rarely deal with substances that would harm humans, she explained.

In addition to the guard services, the Agriculture Department is conducting full-scale competitions for approximately 250 trade and animal caretaking jobs. Those competitions began around the same time as the security competition and are still underway. The in-house teams are currently formulating bids, Bray said.