A key Republican senator said on Wednesday she is not ready to endorse President Obama's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration, saying the White House has been slow and misleading in providing information and that she has learned there are five inspectors general reports into the nominee's previous work.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, pressed retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding during his confirmation hearing Wednesday morning about the work his former company, Harding Security Associates, did in Iraq in 2004.
In an interview after the hearing, Collins said she is still awaiting information on five IG reports concerning Harding.
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RELATED STORIESTSA nominee won't commit to collective bargaining rights 03/23/10 Senators to press TSA nominee on Iraq contract audit 03/23/10 Pentagon audit cited TSA nominee's firm for overbilling 03/19/10 Interrogation work by TSA nominee's firm under review 03/18/10 White House details ethics agreement with TSA nominee 03/17/10 "Since the White House was very slow in disclosing information, I'm going to await the receipt of further reports," she said. "We have virtually all of those, but I just want to do one final scrub since it's become obvious that I can't rely on the White House to volunteer information."
Collins said it was her understanding that the allegations in the reports were not substantiated, but she wants time to review the details.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said the panel would not be able to vote on Harding's nomination until after the Easter recess.
During the hearing, Harding said interrogators who worked for Harding Security in Iraq abided by the Geneva Conventions and that a billing dispute the firm had with the government was a one-time mistake that taught him a lesson.
Harding, a former senior Army intelligence officer and operations director at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the billing dispute arose because he was attempting to pay 40 interrogators after the DIA terminated his contract, 22 of whom were already deployed to Iraq.
But the Defense Contracting Audit Agency, in a finding CongressDaily disclosed last week, said the firm should repay the government $2.2 million. The company eventually settled with the government, agreeing to pay back $1.8 million.
Collins, who said she was satisfied with Harding's explanation, said the White House initially told her the reimbursement was a small percentage of the total contract value, which if carried out in full would have been about $50 million.
But she noted the actual contract value of work done was about $6 million, making the amount of overbilling a much higher percentage.
"I thought the White House's comparison was pretty misleading," Collins said.
Harding, who sold his firm last July, acknowledged he did not give enough attention to the accounting practices of his company as he tried to pay the interrogators. He said he learned from the mistake and it was never repeated.
The White House said last week the interrogators were assigned to Camp Slayer in 2004. But Collins revealed that some were also sent to Camp Cropper, where the Red Cross concluded that detainee abuses occurred in 2003.
Harding also disclosed information about past allegations against him in his questionnaire to the Homeland Security panel. It was not clear if investigations of these allegations were performed by the inspector general of the Army or the Defense Department IG or both.
In 1994, a white male military officer alleged that Harding engaged in discrimination by passing him over for a position, according to the questionnaire. The officer filed a complaint against Harding, which was dismissed by a federal court in 1997, Harding said.
Harding also disclosed he was the subject of an inspector general investigation between 1996 and 2000. He said he did not recall the nature of the complaint that prompted the IG probe, but said he was cleared of it.
He added that he was cleared of an allegation in 1992 that he had a relationship with a female subordinate officer.
In another case, Harding said a company claimed that he unduly influenced a decision to terminate a contract sometime between 1996 and 2000. Harding said a lawsuit was filed that an appeals court found no evidence to substantiate. He said he was not a party in the lawsuit.