updated 4/20/2005 5:54:16 AM ET 2005-04-20T09:54:16

The Transportation Security Administration allowed lavish spending on a $19 million building for its crisis management center, including $3,000 refrigerators and about $500,000 to acquire artwork, silk plants and other items, an inspector general’s report said.

A review of the project’s expenditures uncovered evidence of suspicious purchases, improper use of government purchase cards, and unethical and possibly illegal activities by federal employees, according to the report released Tuesday by the Homeland Security Department.

Separate government investigations described Tuesday found that airport screeners employed by private companies do a better job detecting dangerous objects than government screeners and that the screeners’ performance apparently had not improved since before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

'Project vulnerable to waste and abuse'
The Homeland Security inspector general examined the project that resulted in the Transportation Security Operations Center in Herndon, Va. It shares a building with the systems operation control division of the Federal Air Marshals Service.

The project, which began with an undeveloped office building, was completed in July 2003. The building includes 55 offices, more than 150 work stations, two watch floors, 12 conference rooms and seven kitchens, the report said.

The inspector general faulted the TSA for breakdowns in management controls that “left the project vulnerable to waste and abuse.” Internal reports that policies were being violated were quashed and those who cited problems were admonished to support the project manager, the report said.

The project manager and facility operating officer improperly purchased decorative and miscellaneous items and kept the nature of the purchases hidden by charging them to the construction contract as “equipment and tools,” the report found.

The project spent $252,392 on artwork, $29,032 on art consultants, $30,085 on silk plants, and $13,861 on lamps and other items, the report said. The vendor added a 20 percent markup, a credit for future purchases and overpayments that totaled more than $174,000.

While the center was being built, the project manager made decisions “that appear wasteful,” the report said. It cited offices and workspaces larger than standards permitted; televisions with cable service in 45 of 55 offices; kitchen appliances that included dishwashers, icemakers and $3,000 refrigerators; and a 4,200-square-foot fitness center with a towel laundry service.

“Our recommendations emphasize the need for TSA to adhere to disciplined decision-making processes to ensure that projects are implemented at acceptable costs and that procurement practices are consistent with statutes, regulations and rules,” the report said.

In its classified report on airport screeners, the Government Accountability Office found statistically significant evidence that passenger screeners, who work at five airports under a pilot program, perform better than their federal counterparts at some 450 airports, said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress ordered all commercial airports except five to switch from privately employed screeners to a government work force. The five exceptions — in San Francisco; Tupelo, Miss.; Rochester, N.Y.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo. — all have private workers supervised by TSA officials.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, a senior Democrat on the aviation subcommittee, opposes private screeners and contends the difference between private and government screeners was slight.

Report: Screeners no better than pre-9/11
In a separate report, the Homeland Security inspector general said screeners were diligent and responsible but not better than they were before the Sept. 11 attacks at detecting fake weapons and bombs undercover agents tried to smuggle aboard planes. Greater use of new technology is needed, the inspector general concluded.

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield Jr. said the TSA has deployed new baggage screening technology at three airports and plans to spend $30 million to install the new machines at 100 more. The TSA has also installed walkthrough bomb detection machines at airports in 15 cities and plans to install them at the 40 busiest airports.

Finally, the agency expects to start testing backscatter machines, which can find plastic weapons and improvised bombs, sometime later this year, Hatfield said.

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