Ex-TSA pick Harding's firm got Army deal after he cited sleep apnea disability

Sunday, March 28, 2010; A05

The firm owned by the decorated general who withdrew his nomination to lead the Transportation Security Administration had received a consulting contract worth almost $100 million from the Army after certifying he was a "service disabled veteran," according to documents and interviews with government officials.

The disability he has cited was sleep apnea, a sometimes chronic breathing disorder that disrupts sleep.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding, who became a federal contractor in 2001 after serving at the highest levels of military intelligence, withdrew his name late Friday at the end of a week in which he had been repeatedly questioned about his contracting activities. His withdrawal also came after The Washington Post raised questions with the White House on Friday about his disabilities status.

The White House declined to comment about the $100 million contract, awarded in July 2008, or about Harding's disability, including its cause, diagnosis or impact on his work.

White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said in a statement that in "nominating General Harding, the President tapped an individual with more than 35 years of military and intelligence experience who is dedicated to improving the security of our nation. The President is disappointed in this outcome but remains confident in the solid team of professionals at TSA."

Attempts to reach Harding on Saturday at his home were unsuccessful. In a Friday statement released by the White House, Harding did not address the disability questions but said, "I feel that the distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor would not be good for this Administration nor for the Department of Homeland Security."

Harding's turnabout comes two months after another TSA nominee withdrew, following revelations that he provided misleading information to Congress and the White House. Former FBI agent Erroll Southers gave differing accounts about incidents in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database to obtain information about his former wife's new boyfriend, possibly in violation of privacy laws.

Harding's withdrawal means that a security post administration officials have called the most important unfilled job in the government is still in limbo.

In nomination hearings this week, senators on the commerce and homeland security committees questioned Harding about a contract with the Defense Intelligence Agency that was terminated after $6 million worth of work several years ago. That contract was the subject of a federal audit.

Harding Security Associates agreed to return to the government $1.8 million, some of which government auditors found to be duplicate charges. A review after by the Pentagon's inspector general and others found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.

Harding had a stellar rise through the Pentagon and contracting worlds. From late 1996 to 2000, he served as director of operations for the DIA. He then served as assistant deputy chief of staff for Army intelligence until retiring in August 2001.

Upon leaving government, Harding founded Harding Security Associates, a Virginia firm that received close to $200 million in federal contracts. He sold the company last year.

The firm's biggest deal came in 2008. The Army consulting contract, apparently awarded as a "set-aside" for firms designated as owned by a service disabled veteran, had a potential value of $99.7 million and was to end in September 2011, according to federal contracting records. The principal place of work cited is Fort Belvoir and the work was to include tasks related to biometric identification, the records show.

The records show that Harding's company was considered a small "Veteran-owned," "Black owned," "Service Disabled Vet" owned firm that qualified for special contracting set-asides. The contract said the Army received only one bid on the deal.

The program to set aside federal contracts for service disabled veterans has come under fire recently s for poor oversight and abuses. Harding's company was not mentioned in the reviews.

Whatever the reasons, Harding's withdrawal was so unexpected that talks with administration officials Thursday anticipated either his confirmation by Easter, or a recess appointment, several industry and federal sources said. Last week, acting TSA Administrator Gale Rossides announced a shuffle of senior staff in anticipation of Harding's arrival, they said.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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