Report portrays SSA contract security guards as Keystone Kops

Private security guards hired by the Social Security Administration to protect its facilities spent their shifts watching television, engaged in hourlong phone conversations and chatting with their co-workers when they should have been on patrol, according to a report released in early March by the agency's inspector general.

The report identified a multitude of performance issues with the contractor, Paragon Systems Inc. of Chantilly, Va., which SSA has paid roughly $71 million since 2008. In the most serious instances, weapons and ammunition have gone temporarily missing and a guard was seriously injured when a co-worker failed to properly operate a vehicle barrier on an SSA loading dock.

"Our audit work determined that Paragon was not complying with certain terms of the contract," wrote SSA Inspector General Patrick O'Carroll Jr. "We found guards were not following post orders as stated in the contract, and supervisors were not providing sufficient post inspection checks. There were excessive errors and discrepancies on the forms used to track post hours worked and account for firearms. These errors and discrepancies could indicate that posts were unattended."

The IG suggested that if Paragon's performance did not improve, "it may become necessary to take corrective action … that may require that SSA recompete this contract before its expiration."

SSA officials have deducted payments for some of Paragon's mistakes. A performance report from April 2009 through March 2010 graded the company as "poor" for quality of service.

In a statement to Government Executive, Paragon said it first became aware of the service concerns in April 2010 and met with agency officials the following month. The company replaced the project manager and all the supervisors. Paragon's chief of staff and director of quality control were assigned to the project every day for three consecutive months. And a quality control monitor was assigned to the project.

"Since these changes began, Paragon and the SSA Office of Protective Security Services have worked diligently together to address several new initiatives designed to strengthen the security protocols on campus," the statement said. "Paragon believes that the concerns noted in the recent OIG report and initially identified in discussions with the SSA last spring have been effectively addressed. SSA is currently preparing its annual evaluation of its security services contract and Paragon believes that the new evaluation will bear out the positive impact of this collaborative effort."

Paragon has provided security for SSA buildings in Maryland since March 2008. The contract originally was held by USProtect Corp. But that company shut down after the government canceled its contracts following the convictions of two former executives for tax evasion, bribery and concealment of material information. Paragon won the new contract and hired many of USProtect's personnel, including several company executives, the IG said. The company's contract with SSA has one base year and nine option years for a total cost of $242 million.

The contract requires armed guards at fixed posts to check employee badges, inspect bags and operate metal detectors. A number of roving guards on foot and in vehicles watch both the interior and exterior of the buildings.

But the audit found Paragon guards were not always at their posts. Investigators observed two mobile patrols idling side by side in a parking lot for more than 10 minutes on two different days. The IG also was unable to locate several roving guards and one mobile patrol. And in one case, a roving guard was given orders to move inside, leaving her exterior post unattended for an entire shift, the report said. In total, the report identified 46 guards not performing their mandatory post duties.

Security was just as lax on the inside of SSA buildings, where Paragon guards failed to check IDs of people entering and used X-ray machines improperly. Two male guards were viewed using handheld wand metal detectors on female contractors entering the building. SSA best practices suggest wanding inspections be performed by a guard of the same gender as the person being inspected.

"We viewed several instances where guards were not focused on their duties, including guards dozing off and guards loitering at posts involved in personal conversations," O'Carroll wrote. "During a weekend observation, we noted one guard watching a small television under the desk while working a 24-hour post. Guards not complying with post orders as required by the contract could compromise SSA's physical security."

The IG also expressed concern over a high volume of telephone calls to and from guard posts. The contract states that workers can use the phone only for official duties. But the IG reviewed telephone logs and discovered 227 calls lasting more than 20 minutes and 23 calls lasting longer than an hour. Lengthy calls were also placed overnight to closed posts, leading the contracting officer technical representative to conclude they were "not of a business nature."

Among the most troubling findings involved the careless management of weapons. In January 2010, a Paragon supervisor realized a firearm was missing after completing the inventory at the end of a shift. Both the guard and supervisor had documented, however, that the missing weapon had been returned. The guard, who was given a one-day suspension, later reported that she found the weapon in her possession and returned it six hours after it was reported missing.

In July 2010, 24 rounds of ammunition went missing at the end of a shift, but the incident was not immediately reported to SSA. The ammunition was found several hours later, and auditors did not determine whether Paragon took any disciplinary action following the incident.

In arguably the most serious incident detailed by the IG, a contract guard was seriously hurt while crossing a vehicle barrier on a loading dock. The guard operating the barrier had not received proper training to operate the equipment.

The watchdog offered five recommendations to improve contractor performance, and the agency agreed to take corrective actions in each area.

"Because of the number of varying issues we noted on this contract, it is imperative that SSA remain aware of contractor issues and continue its strong oversight," the IG concluded. "SSA should examine the current contract clauses specific to performance and modify the contract as deemed necessary."

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