Costs spiraled out of control when the new Transportation Security Administration set out to recruit airport screeners in 2002, and Alaska cities had some of the highest costs per hire, according to a recent inspector general's report.
The recruiting company for the transportation agency, NCS Pearson, billed more than $2 million to hire 66 workers in Juneau. It billed almost $2.4 million to hire 80 in Fairbanks. Successful recruitment of two airport security officers in Barrow cost the government $128,000 apiece.
A TSA spokeswoman in Seattle, Jennifer Marty, said she didn't know what accounted for the high costs in Alaska, but she assumed part of it was inefficiencies of scale.
"We have a bunch of very, very small airports in Alaska," she said.
Nationwide, costs for the recruitment of airport screeners ballooned from $104 million in the original contract estimate in 2002, to a final settlement of $741 million.
Much of the blame goes to the TSA, the agency's inspector general said in a report issued this month.
The new agency didn't have the staff to oversee a major contract, and Congress had given it just one year to hire a screening work force, the report noted. The initial contract called for Pearson to hire 30,000 screeners using the company's existing offices and processing centers for computer testing and medical evaluations.
But less than a month later, TSA decided it wanted an assessment center within a two-hour drive of each airport where the new hires would work.
"Without any apparent analysis of the cost impact, TSA dramatically changed its recruitment approach and directed the contractor to establish approximately 150 temporary assessment centers," the report said.
Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked for an investigation in 2003 when they heard that 20 TSA recruiters set up shop for seven weeks at the plush Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa in Telluride, Colo. Press accounts said the recruitment effort was so poorly publicized that on some days only one or two potential recruits came in. In all, the 20 recruiters hired 51 people there for five area airports.
The inspector general's report said NCS Pearson hired a subcontractor to evaluate hotels, and many locations were rejected because they lacked high-speed computer lines.
The TSA spent almost $1.7 million at the Telluride site, or nearly $40,000 per person hired. By that measure, Telluride was the 18th most expensive screening location.
At $143,000 per hire, Topeka, Kan., was No. 1, followed by two Alaska communities, Barrow and Dutch Harbor. Nome, at $51,000 per hire, ranked ninth, Kodiak 12th and Juneau 20th.
Last year, The Washington Post obtained a confidential audit of invoices for the recruitment contract and found several examples of questionable spending:
* At the Telluride resort, a TSA contractor spent $1,540 to rent 14 extension cords at a cost of $5 per day for about three weeks.
* One phone call from the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Chicago to Iowa City cost $526.95.
* Recruiters paid $8,100 for elevator service in a Manhattan hotel with notoriously slow elevators.
* Temporary workers paid $20 an hour were billed to the government at $48 per hour.
* Subcontractors signed out $5,000 in cash at a time without supporting documents.
Marty, the TSA spokeswoman, said the audit leaked to the Post is not publicly available because it contains sensitive security information. Neither she nor an NCS Pearson spokeswoman could provide any breakdown of the Alaska expenses.
Ray Culbreth, security director for the Juneau Airport, said he thought the initial recruitment drive in Juneau was held at Centennial Hall and lasted a few weeks.
"I realize that contractors have costs and I'm not familiar with the costs that they had, but it was an expensive endeavor," said Culbreth, who was not working for the agency at the time.
Eileen Rivera, a spokeswoman for NCS Pearson, which has since become Pearson Government Solutions, said the company worked at the government's direction.
"TSA gave us a time frame within which we had to book these hotels, and we had no maneuvering room," she said. "They had a quota in each city that they needed to fill and they would keep centers open as long as it took to meet that quota."
She said she could not provide any details about the Alaska recruitment because all the records were in storage.
The authors of the inspector general report said they focused only on TSA's management of the contract, not on the contractor's performance.
"Certain matters associated with NCS Pearson's contract costs are still under investigation," the report says.
Reporter Liz Ruskin can be reached at email@example.com.
THE REPORT: Go online for a link to the inspector general report.
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