Harding Withdraws as TSA Nominee

Monday, 29 March 2010

Inquiries on defense contracting work dogged Obama's 2nd pick

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding withdrew from consideration to become the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Friday after two days of confirmation hearings in the US Senate.

In a statement, Harding attributed his withdrawal to scrutiny of his former company Harding Security Associations, which he sold to Six3 Systems Inc. of McLean, Va., last summer.

"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 stated.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, presented the most in-depth questions about Harding's firm in his second confirmation hearing Thursday. Collins inquired about an apparent over-billing problem the firm experienced with a terminated contract.

The Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) examined a contract awarded to Harding Security Associates, when Harding owned the company, for interrogators in Iraq. The government canceled the contract early and DCAA questioned if Harding over-billed the government by $860,000.

The Defense Department (DoD) unexpectedly cancelled the one-year renewable contract after only four months, throwing experienced operatives out of work, Harding told the Senate.

The firm therefore negotiated a termination fee of $1.6 million, making total revenue of about $4 million from the contract.

Harding paid his terminated employees $800,000 in severance collectively, but DoD disputed the payments because the company had not negotiated a severance agreement in its contract, Harding explained. That error in procedure raised questions in the DCAA audit, but the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)--the agency that hired the firm and one where Harding served as deputy chief--eventually concluded Harding did nothing wrong.

However, the Washington Post Sunday raised additional questions about the manner in which Harding won a separate Army contract, reporting that he claimed to be a service-disabled veteran due to sleep apnea.

In July 2008, Harding Security Associates received a $100-million contract from the US Army after filing as a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business.

The Department of Veterans Affairs does regularly consider sleeping disorders such a sleep apnea as a service-related disability and often awards veterans disability compensation and assistance based on sleep apnea.

Harding also potentially faced a hold from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who blocked the Obama administration's first nominee to lead TSA. Erroll Southers withdrew from consideration in January after DeMint was unsatisfied that Southers would oppose collective bargaining rights for TSA airport screeners. Southers had committed to studying the issue and protecting national security concerns raised by Republicans, but DeMint would not remove the hold.

Harding said he would implement collective bargaining, which is supported by President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in a way that would maintain flexibilities required to assure national security.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union seeking to officially represent airport screeners, said Saturday that it would continue to press for collective bargaining.

"Because of the importance of the TSA administrator to our nation's security, the administration has got to make it a priority to find a nominee who is above reproach and can win a confirmation bid," AFGE President John Gage said in a statement.

In February, the union filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) to represent roughly the 40,000 transportation security officers. At least 30 percent of the screeners have endorsed collective bargaining, clearing a first hurdle at FLRA. TSA now has until April 12 to report its position to the labor board.

Napolitano told the House Homeland Security Committee in February that legal counsel at the Department of Homeland Security believe she could grant collective bargaining rights to screeners directly without legislative action if she were so inclined.

Collective bargaining rights would grant screeners the ability to organize and demand changes in workplace conditions.

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