But FPS provided their fellow law enforcement officers little help.
GSA had not paid FPS to provide security at Hardesty since 2003. So when asked by the local police for help, FPS supervisors ordered their responding officers to unlock the gate to the building and then stand down.
Kansas City police arrested the suspects, while FPS officers — embarrassed to have their hands tied — stood by and watched. Serious funding and staffing shortfalls are forcing FPS to almost entirely cut out proactive patrols meant to detect and prevent criminal incidents, the Government Accountability Office reported in February. And officers say that federal properties for which FPS does not collect security fees, such as Hardesty, go unprotected.
In the case of Hardesty, poor security has done more than embarrass FPS officers. In recent years, the facility had become a haven for criminal activity such as copper wire looting, which may have led to the deaths of two people, including a GSA employee. Now, GSA is embroiled in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the employee’s widow.
Law enforcement experts say the problems at Hardesty illustrate how FPS’s unique funding system has failed since it was transferred from GSA to the Homeland Security Department in 2003.
When it was part of GSA, FPS drew its funding from a combination of security fees assessed from the agencies it protected and GSA’s Federal Buildings Fund. But by 2005, FPS lost its supplemental Federal Buildings Fund money and found itself with a $70 million funding shortfall.
Since then, FPS has tried to cut costs to stay afloat. And its officers say that part of the cost-cutting measures have included expressly forbidding officers to even drive by unprotected facilities like Hardesty.
“The funding mechanism is breaking down,” said Jon Adler, vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. The funding shortfall is “having a severe negative impact on FPS presence in government buildings, and the consequences are dire.”
Budgetary problems have affected nearly every aspect of FPS. GAO said the shortfalls caused FPS to lose nearly one-quarter of its staff over the last four years — from 1,400 in 2004 to 1,060 today.
The agency has cut back on the hours it operates in many locations; GAO said this adds hours or even days to the time it takes FPS to respond to incidents, and means there are often no officers on duty when federal employees arrive at or leave their workplaces.
GAO said FPS has enacted cost-cutting measures such as restricting hiring and travel, not buying new radios, limiting training and overtime, and cutting out employee performance awards to make up its budget shortfall.
But FPS’s cost-cutting hasn’t always been enough to close the gap, and Homeland Security has occasionally had to step in and help. DHS provided $29 million in emergency funding in fiscal 2006, GAO said.
FPS is trying to persuade local police forces to help out in providing security to federal buildings, but it has not signed agreements to ensure local assistance. GAO said several local police departments it spoke to were unaware that FPS needed their help.
And FPS’s decision to largely phase out its police officers and have its inspectors conduct only building security assessments and contract management — relying on contract guards to deter crime and local police to respond to incidents — has left some facilities with little or no coverage by FPS officers or inspectors, GAO said. The February report said one large, but unnamed facility — a so-called level IV facility, which has more than 450 federal employees, more than 150,000 square feet, and a high amount of contact with the public — had lost all six of its FPS officers.
In its report on the problem of unprotected federal buildings, the GAO said that in October, authorities discovered in the Hardesty building the dead body of a suspected burglar, which had gone undetected for three months.
Adler and David Wright, an inspector stationed in Kansas City who heads the American Federation of Government Employees union representing FPS employees, say Congress needs to fund FPS at least in part with appropriated funds.
Some local FPS officers say occasional drive-by security patrols at Hardesty weren’t a problem until 2005, when funding shortfalls hit their peak.
“I don’t recall hearing before , ‘Don’t patrol this place,’” said Derrick Reuschlein, an FPS inspector stationed in Kansas City. “The 2005 time frame is when we started hearing, ‘If we’re not getting paid, you can’t play.’”
FPS says it has no choice but to direct its resources toward the buildings that it is specifically paid to patrol and protect. “If [officers] are visiting other locations that are not authorized, they would not be performing duties on their post or area of responsibility,” spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery said. There could be “vulnerabilities ... if every FPS officer were doing so rather than focus on the buildings they have a responsibility for.”
GSA decided to try to sell the underused Hardesty complex in the late 1990s, and vacated it in 2001. FPS continued to patrol Hardesty for its parent agency, GSA, at a reduced cost until 2003, when FPS became part of DHS and stopped giving GSA discounts. GSA said its own tight budget meant it had to focus on paying for security at occupied facilities.
Without regular patrols, the chain-link fence surrounding Hardesty did little to deter thieves, Wright said. Criminals soon began regularly breaking into Hardesty to loot its copper wire. GSA employees, such as project specialist David Eubank, sometimes called in FPS to arrest looters they caught red-handed, but little else was done to deter criminal activity.
Looting activity may have led to Eubank’s death in August 2006. Hardesty’s power substation had also been vandalized, and looters are suspected to have left a length of chain hanging from a metal brace there. Eubank was electrocuted when he removed the chain and died 10 days later.
Eubank’s widow, Kembra, is suing Kansas City Power and Light in the U.S. District Court for Missouri’s Western District for leaving the power running to the substation. KCP&L is countersuing GSA, saying the agency failed to safeguard the abandoned building. The case is now in the discovery phase.
After one suspected thief broke into Hardesty and then a neighboring facility in January, GSA decided it was time to once again get protection from FPS. But Matt Duran, GSA’s chief of security in Kansas City, said the negotiations broke down in February. GSA wanted an FPS officer to conduct mobile patrols at Hardesty a few times each day, but FPS insisted on a far more expensive option —stationing two guards around the clock.
GSA eventually hired local security guards to drive by Hardesty for less than $5,000 a month, and Duran said the guards have since scared criminals away from Hardesty. Duran said FPS’s solution would have cost about $67,000 a month.
“We couldn’t spend [tens of] thousands of dollars to protect a facility that will only collect a minimal amount for taxpayers when we sell it,” Duran said.
GSA said FPS patrols fewer than 10 vacant facilities, and Hardesty is the only facility guarded by private security guards outside of the FPS system.
One other vacant, guarded facility is San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza building. GSA hopes to eventually reopen the historic building after remodeling it and making it more earthquake-safe. But for the time being, FPS officers drive by every few hours during the day and at night, a security guard contracted by FPS patrols the building.
“Our main concern is that if it’s not watched properly, homeless people will break in,” said Gene Gibson, spokeswoman for GSA’s Pacific Rim region. “It’s on the edge of an iffy neighborhood.”