Banking on Terror – The NCS Pearson Story By William Bowles

11 June 2003

Want to make a lot of money out of the ‘war on terror’? Get into the airport passenger and baggage screening business and write your own cheques

You’ve probably not heard of NCS Pearson Inc. (now called Pearson Government Solutions), and neither had I until a former employee of one of the previously privately owned companies that used to do the work of screening passengers and baggage in the nation’s 429 commercial airports, wrote and asked me if I would do a story on the company.

911 created enormous possibilities for making money, especially if your company is ‘well placed’ to take advantage of the great gobs of cash being handed out and with virtually no oversight, by the federal government in the climate of fear that has been created since September 2001. This is especially true and for obvious reasons, of the airline industry, which has suffered vast reversals of fortune and which would have probably collapsed completely without the various and sundry federal bailouts.

In addition, the Bush administration had to find someone to take the blame for its own failings following September 11 and who better to take the rap than the workers in the airport security industry. This then, is the story of the Transportation Security Administration, which was tasked with the job of protecting the nation’s civilian air transportation system and do it virtually overnight.

The NCS Pearson (NCSP) story is one of rip-offs, consisting of discrimination based on age, race and sex; overcharging, cost overruns, nepotism, corruption, union busting and just plain incompetence. In short, it’s a textbook case of beltway carpet-bagging and government coverups. And it’s not limited to airport screeners, as NCSP through its subsidiaries, conducts a variety of testing programmes in schools across the US which have also come under the spotlight, and indeed, have been the subject of a lawsuit which was resolved in an out-of-court settlement between the parents of children who had been incorrectly failed by Pearson-administered tests.

What is the TSA?

On November 19, 2001, President Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which created the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TSA, was set up in the mad rush to protect the ‘homeland’ following 911. Concerned that the more than 70 privately owned screening and security companies that ran passenger and baggage screening in the nation’s airports, had inadequate oversight and no national standards, the TSA federalised the airport screening industry (nationalised it). But in order to carry out this enormous task and complete the entire process in less than a year, it awarded a multi-million dollar (and open-ended) contract to NCS Pearson and to three other companies to manage the conversion. This involved the development of testing and screening systems, and the hiring and training of around 45,000 staff on behalf of the TSA (a figure which finally climbed to 129,000, three times the original estimate).

According to an NCS Pearson press release it:

  • “Received over 5.9 million inquiries through internet job postings
  • Held more than 89 job fairs in 56 cities drawing over 84,000 people in attendance
  • Processed over 1.4 million completed internet job applications
  • Assessed over 430,000 prospective applicants in over 150 assessment centers from around the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Guam
  • Qualified over 125,000 candidates who are now eligible to serve in the federal workforce
  • Assisted TSA in hiring a world-class workforce of 45,000 federal passenger screeners
  • Reached out to over 2,000 organizations nationwide to create a workforce more diverse than that of the U.S. civilian labor force.”

“”We are pleased to have helped TSA accomplish this Herculean task,” said Mac Curtis, President, Government Solutions, NCS Pearson. “In the last few months, TSA has hired the best and brightest to help protect the safety and security of the American public. Secretary Mineta, and Admiral James Loy are to be commended for their hard work and efforts over these last few months to meet the Congressional deadline.””
http://www.pearsoned.com/pr_2002/111802.htm

And what is NCS Pearson? According to the same press release:

“NCS Pearson is a global provider of applications, services and technologies for education, testing, assessment, government and complex data management. NCS Pearson’s Government Solutions business is based in Arlington, Va. NCS Pearson operates as a business of Pearson Education, the world’s largest integrated education company, which in turn is part of Pearson, the international media company.”

Yet the question has to be asked, was NCSP properly equipped to take on the job which, according to NCSP is:

“[T]he largest peacetime mobilization in our nation’s history.”

And it had to be completed between March and November 2002, in just nine short months.

Why and how NCSP became the ‘company of choice’ – especially as it’s core business is educational publishing and media – to manage and implement the creation of the TSA, is one for which I’ve found no answer and, thanks to yet another act passed by the Bush administration in the rush to wage the ‘war on terror’, enabled the TSA and its operations to be exempt from the normal government oversight on how federal agencies conduct their business. This has made the job of investigating NCSP’s business practices all the more difficult even for Congress, let alone the unfortunate former screening employees, 85% of whom have not been (re)hired by the TSA in spite of TSA’s federally mandated hiring rules.

“Ultimately, so bad was NCSP’s performance that its contract was not renewed this year and it was transferred to another company, Accenture, although from some of the correspondence I’ve seen, Accenture may not be much of an improvement. But in any case, the damage has already been done. Finally, this month (June), a house sub-committee started to try and investigate the operations of the TSA and the four sub-contractors tasked with the job and according to Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.),

“”It appears to me that the management of TSA is virtually a misnomer. It does not exist from what I can tell…. Over and over again we hear from the inspector general and others of contracts that have not been properly overseen and costs that have spiraled out of control.”

“Of those hired, 53% either had some discrepancy in their record that needed to be cleared up later, or had an undetected problem like a criminal conviction, and yet they were offered permanent jobs.

“As many as 30,000 of the 55,000 screeners hired to work in airports remained uncleared at one time by the OPM–a process that takes 90 days.

“When asked by subcommittee members to describe in detail any problems TSA had noted in Pearson’s contract performance, [USCG Adm. (ret.) James M.] Loy [head of the TSA] declined to discuss the matter at the open hearing, but he offered to brief lawmakers privately.”” – Aviation Now, June 8, 2003

What about the workers?
But aside from the critical issues of whether or not NCSP was qualified to do the job and whether or not it managed the process properly, what about the 22,000 former employees, concerned about the future of their jobs, who prior to the industry being federalised, did the work that the TSA was tasked to carry out?

There are so many stories from former and current employees of mismanagement and corrupti
on that it’s impossible to list them all here. What I’ve tried to do is present a typical cross-section of the experiences that they’ve gone through at the hands of NCSP and the TSA.

According to the many letters of complaint I’ve looked at from many former airport screening employees and the few reports that have appeared in mostly the local press across the US, it’s apparent that they’ve gotten a raw deal and on a lot of issues. And, at the end of the day, are people travelling on the nation’s airlines safer now than they were prior to September 11, 2001?

According to the law:

“TSA will give hiring preference to Veterans. The TSA will also recruit and give consideration to displaced aviation workers.”

Yet has this provision been honoured?

Rehiring and assessment

From the very beginning, the TSA has been plagued with problems, not the least of which has been the issue of the 22,000 formerly privately employed screening employess, all of whom were guaranteed by law, federal employment by the TSA. Says one:

“When the TSA started arriving at these airports in the winter of 2001 they began preparing for the federalization of the screening positions. They constantly reassured us that they we would become federal employees and that any testing or assessment would be offered to us first before the assessments would be opened to outside applicants.

“In the summer of 2002 job fairs began being advertised in the local newspapers. The TSA representatives told us not to attend because since we were already screeners we didn’t need to reapply. The TSA further stated that these job fairs were only held to recruit additional screeners that would add to our workforce and that they were being assessed first so that they could take over while we were being assessed [But] shortly thereafter they began assessing those who had applied at the job fair.

“Over the next few weeks the TSA began changing their stories and started contradicting themselves.”

And accusations of nepotism such as this one from a worker at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport are repeated across the country:

“Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, a current Wackenhut employee said…she also believes her coworkers have been discriminated against by TSA…. [T]he source said those Wackenhut employees who have been awarded federal jobs received special consideration based on personal relationships with members of airport management.

“It seems as though the people who are passed (during TSA screenings) are hand-picked, as if TSA already knows the people they want,” the source said.” – Las Vegas Review-Journal, September 28 2002

The TSA – “the most corrupt organisation in the federal government”

I must have read through dozens of messages on chat boards, emails and online forums. Common themes running through everything I’ve read; corruption, racism, nepotism and incompetence that seems to go right to the top of the TSA and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security). Comments like:

“DHS IG (Inspector General) [will never] do anything about NCSP…the IG is…too close to Pappy Bush. They may never do a thing to upset Tom Ridge’s and Admiral Loy’s apple cart.”

Joseph Richard Gutheinz, is a former special agent with both the Federal Aviation Administration Civil Aviation Security and a former special agent with the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General. According to Gutheinz:

“The FAA, from which the new Transportation Security Administration finds its genesis, is one of the most corrupt organizations in the federal government.

“The first priority of the…TSA is public relations, not public safety, which is why meeting a timetable for screeners to come on board may have led to answer sharing. All over the country, stories are emerging of screeners missing prohibited contraband or letting suspect individuals through security.

“I believe it is probable that these tests were rigged, and I also believe that any internal investigation of this problem will be fixed.”

“TSA has a two-year history of problems”

“Cathy Lowenberg, with the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, told the committee her agency has interviewed many former screeners who believe they were denied federal jobs due to their race, nationality, age or sex.

But she cannot prove this, she said, because the federal government won’t release demographic data on how many minority and immigrant workers were displaced when screening jobs became federalized.” “

Mike Ferrill, 52, worked for TSA for two months at the South Bend Regional Airport before he was fired from the $75,000-per-year job.

“The Granger resident is alleging the reasons for his termination amount to discrimination based on age, disability and race. Last week, he filed a 12-count civil lawsuit in federal court against his former employer, the Transportation Safety Administration, and his supervisor, John Compston.

“The suit asks for full back pay as well as compensation for future earnings, attorney fees, pain and suffering and punitive damages.

“According to the lawsuit, Ferrill alleges he was ordered by Compston to fire minority employees and that his refusal resulted in his termination.

“The suit also charges that the agency has a practice of dismissing or transferring older white males employed as screening managers and replacing them with younger and lesser experienced workers.

“Ferrill further claims TSA is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because Compston refused to change Ferrill’s work schedule to accommodate his symptoms of chronic fatigue, dizziness and muscular pain caused by sleep apnea.”

And in another lawsuit initiated by former workers at Portland (Oregon) International Airport:

“[Workers] claim…that they were not given a fair chance at the new jobs…. The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland, also claims that some former screeners were discriminated against on the basis of their gender, race and age….

“The suit asks the court to require immediate re-testing of all former screeners for the new jobs and the hiring of all who pass the required test. The suit also asks the court to certify it as a class action so it covers about 140 former airport screeners who were not hired to the federal jobs.

“Don S. Willner, the Portland attorney who filed the case, said former screeners have made similar complaints in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, Orlando, Fla., and other cities…. Federal transportation officials promised to give preference to experienced Huntleigh employees who passed the test but hired new screeners before testing the former ones, the suit says…. At least two former screeners, both military veterans, were denied preferential hiring treatment for veterans in violation of federal law, according to the suit. In addition, screeners who were women and minorities were failed by testers at a higher rate than white male screeners, the suit says…. Transportation officials also discriminated against former screeners who were older than 45, the suit asserts.

“The suit also claims that federal officials and NCS Pearson have conducted a public relations campaign to tout their new screeners as “the best of the best.” In the process, they have disparaged former screeners, making
it difficult for them to find new employment.”
The Oregonian, November 8, 2002

Jobs for the (TSA) boys

Another issue that seems to be high on the list is TSA’s questionable practice of not hiring people locally and instead using people from out of town which in turn, has led to millions of dollars of taxpayers money being spent on hotel accommodation across the country for NSCP employees hired, supposedly to conduct interviews and screen prospective TSA employees.

According to eyewitness reports I’ve read, TSA treated former screening employees not only with disdain when they complained about the abusive treatment they’ve received at the hands of NCSP testers but which led to threats of using the police or calling into question their ‘patriotism’ if they dared complain or protest.

Take the case of Telluride. In a report by KCNS TV, 20 TSA recruiters spent $375,000 of taxpayers money for the eight weeks they took to hire 61 screeners. That’s around $6000 per hire.

“The Department of Transportation now says the TSA showed a “lack of management oversight” and “weaknesses” in hiring screeners. That led to as much as $250 million tax dollars squandered due to “wasteful and abusive spending practices.”

Government investigations are now under way into the Telluride recruiting trip, and millions of dollars in other TSA expenditures to see if taxpayers got shaken down.

“Now if somewhere along the line too much money was spent, our auditing process will find it and we’ll make adjustments to get that tax money where it belongs,” Johnson said.

“Two months? That doesn’t make any sense to me,” guest Hines said. “Two months in a place like this sounds like a vacation to me.”

“The TSA says it is holding up millions of dollars in payments to subcontractors until the audits are completed. And the agency says if it got gouged by subcontractors who have already been paid, the TSA will ask the subcontractors to give the money back”

Or how about the case where 50 TSA recruiter spent millions for hotel accommodation in New York:

“The Holiday Inn at Kennedy Airport confirmed that about fifty Transportation Security Administration employees have been living there for about six months at a goverment rate of $162 a night. That translates into $1,458,000 of your money. And sources say that’s the tip of the iceberg. Since the government also paid for 200 screeners to stay at the Ramada Plaza at JFK for 5 months at $119 a night…[p]aying out $3,570,000 for the accommodations.” – Eyewitness News, NYC

That’s over $5 million dollars in hotel expenses just in NYC! Mark Hatfield, spokesperson for the TSA, said that the agency was unable to find qualified local people to hire (this in spite of the high unemployment levels in the NY area). But the TSA did manage to hire dozens of people who turned out to have criminal records. And some who were even arrested for committing crimes while on the job.

Mark Hatfield: “Yes, we’ve hired people who came up clean on a check for whatever reason that criminal record didn’t appear until later, and we terminated them.” – Eyewitness News, NYC

The law states that veterans should be given preference when it came to hiring, yet the experience of at least one veteran contradicts this:

“I am a 10-point Preference Military Vet. I applied on… day applications opened and was interviewed and tested during the first week of the process…. I personally had applied for the Supervisor position, passed the tests and then was told:

There are no more supervisor positions available…. When questioned about this statement and how it could possibly be true, my interviewer – Mr. Lee, changed his story and stated that…. You simply aren’t qualified.

I became furious and told him I passed their tests, and he never looked at any of my information. He [refused[ to review my…civilian and military resume of qualifications, (15 years Navy, electronics tech, radar tech (including image identification) 10 years management-civilian, BA degree etc.)…. [He] refused numerous times to accept my DD214 (Honorable Discharged Vet)…refused numerous times to accept my Veterans Preference (10-point) – SF-15 with personal letter from the DVA…refused to accept my previous employment pay stubs for fair compensation (making more than the supervisor scale permitted)…. When I continued questioning him and telling him that he was required under federal law to accept my veteran’s paperwork, he stated:

“”[E]ither you accept the Lead or Screener position or I will have the Police Officer standing at the doorway remove you!””

“Reluctantly I accepted the Lead position.

“No more than 10 minutes later while standing in line to schedule my medical appointment, more than 5 people interviewed after me were given supervisor positions. Two of these people were skycaps at the airport with no college education or “supervisory” experience, Three were young “attractive” females who when questioned also admitted to having no college education, one was a waitress. N[one] had any military background…. The first days of testing were supposed to for military only.”

Union bashing

The same veteran reported the following:

“A few months later I became one of the 13 Charter Members of the AFGE – our union for TSA employees. Although my pay checks had never had a problem before joining the union, I have not been paid correctly since the day after joining! They even lost 2 paychecks in a row, I was not paid for over 1 month. Then I was charged for their wire transfer fee, overdraft fees and late fees. **** in our payroll office has refused to pay any of the fees stating “it is not our problem”. What a damn fine coincidence. Yet another coincidence, an “acting” Manager (former contract screening company) who had already been written up on a formal complaint for creating a “Hostile Working Environment”, began making up false accusation about me. I had witnesses that exposed her lies, and I am in the process of talking with the union lawyers at this time.

“Many of our people have been told outright, and lately more subtly, that talking to union members or joining is bad for your employment. [Two TSA managers] have stated “Good employees are (TSA) team players and don’t go outside of the team”, “If you go outside the team, you are causing problems and employees that cause problems are terminated””.

And this is not an isolated example. Take the case of Cynthia Cavalie who was a fraud investigator for New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. She decided her skills and experience would useful to the TSA and a good career move. Instead:

“Cavalie found in the TSA at JFK International Airport…she alleged, is a hostile working environment where managers showed no regard for the safety or dignity of their subordinates.

“She explained that she has been assigned as a baggage screener on numerous occasions, even though she has never been given the proper training to complete those duties safely. “

“And after being threatened by a former employee of the private screening company the TSA displaced, Cavalie said her supervisors did nothing to help prosecute the man for his threats or to protect her from him, even though he still works at the airport.”

So Cavalie decided that a union was needed.

“”It soon became clear to me that, without a union to represent us, passenger and baggage screeners at JFK would never have a chance to prov
ide American taxpayers the safety and security they are paying for,” Cavalie declared. “That’s why I set out to organize the screeners at my airport.””

Les Marzke is a lead passenger screener for the TSA at Orlando International Airport and Marzke agrees:

“I joined the union because, in light of my experience so far at the TSA, I can see no way that airport screeners will ever be able to adequately protect the flying public – and the people of the United States – unless we have a say in the working conditions and safety procedures that shape our jobs,” Marzke explained.

“Until we have collective bargaining, I have no faith that reasonable job requirements and safety procedures will ever be put into place,” he said.”

Alfunzo Staley spent 15 years in the Marine Corps before he was hired by the TSA and then laid off. Staley questions whether he was laid off, at least in part, because of his activities in support of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

“When the terrible state of the workforce at the TSA became apparent, I helped spread the word about the AFGE’s campaign to organize us,” Staley admitted. “I’ll never know whether my involvement with the union played a role in my termination from the TSA.”

All three screeners noted that they have personal knowledge of pro-union materials being removed from bulletin boards where they were lawfully displayed and of screeners’ jobs being threatened in response to pro-union comments.

“As I tried to inform a lot of the employees there about the union’s position and that they can join, I found the vast majority are afraid to join because of the retribution they’ve seen that I’ve been experiencing,” Marzke said of Orlando International.” – Source: CSNnews.com, June 10, 2003

Union official charges TSA with ‘union busting’

“Bobby Harnage, national president of the AFGE, said some TSA managers have been openly hostile to the union’s efforts.

“”We still have managers throughout the agency who intimidate employees and tell them, ‘You can talk about baseball, you can talk about football, but you can’t talk about the union,” he said.

“”And where we’ve put…notices and advertisements in the break rooms, within an hour they’re taken down, and [employees are] told they may lose their job if they sign up with the union,” Harnage added.

“Harnage believes the Bush administration’s desire to keep the TSA union-free has little to do with national security and much to do with “union-busting.”

“”What they mainly were after was to be able to hire employees without going through the merit system, [so that] it would be who you know rather than what you know, and to be able to fire federal employees without due process,” Harnage alleged, noting that many employees of the former private security contractors have been hired as supervisors for the TSA. “It was favoritism, and it was, certainly, a merit-less process.”” – Source: CSNnews.com, June 10, 2003

The usual suspects

Not only is the evidence an indictment of Pearson’s inability to manage the process, but it’s also an indictment of the TSA itself, which appears to be more concerned with protecting its image and that of Pearson and the corporations hired to carry out the conversion, than of safeguarding the millions of passengers who fly into and out of, the nation’s airports. Not surprisingly, in addition to NCS Pearson, there are other companies, at least one of which has a suspect relationship to the Bush administration including one private contractor that conducted background checks for the TSA. All are now being questioned in a widening probe by the House homeland security appropriations subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). They include:

“Choicepoint, which was paid $19 million for conducting criminal, credit and other background checks on airport-screener applicants last fall,” and…PEC Solutions Inc., a Fairfax firm that collected fingerprints from screener applicants; DynCorp Systems and Solutions LLC, a Reston company that adjudicated applicants who had questionable background checks.”

Dyncorp and Choicepoint are already doing very well thank you, out of the ‘war on terror’ business. Dyncorp has made millions out of its PMC (Private Military Contractors) business in Kosovo and Saudi Arabia and Choicepoint has been engaged by the Federal government to develop background screening on millions of American and foreign citizens and through its use of Sybase software, the company that is developing the database applications Choicepoint uses, which has questionable connections to the Bush family.

Did Pearson hire the right people?

The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times reported…”that dozens of airport screeners in Los Angeles and New York had serious criminal histories. At Los Angeles International Airport, six TSA screeners said they had been convicted of felonies in answers to questions on an application for an airport security badge…. In its rush to hire 55,600 screeners by last November, the TSA did not have time to thoroughly check the backgrounds of all of its hires, the agency has said.”

In another report from a former screener, a passenger who had a “No War with Iraq” sticker on his baggage says:

“”[A] federal security agent…opened his luggage inserted a note criticizing his “anti- American attitude.” “I found it chilling and a little Orwellian to have received this message,” said Seth Goldberg, 41, of Cranbury, N.J. Federal Transportation Security Administration officials are investigating. Goldberg says that after a March 2 flight from Seattle to San Diego, he opened his bag and found a card notifying him that TSA had opened and searched it. A handwritten note said: “Don’t appreciate your anti-American attitude!” He said it would have been hard for anyone else to have placed the note because…zipper pulls [on the bag] were sealed with straps that indicated an inspection. If a TSA employee placed the note, “we will take appropriate and swift action,” a spokesman said Saturday.””

And stories like this an the others documented above, are repeated across the country at many airports including, McCarran International Airport, Honolulu Airport, Denver, LAX, Chicago, Boston Logan International, New York, Las Vegas, Seattle, South Bend Regional Airport and others.

“Convoluted and confusing”

“As of this month [June], 1,208 screeners have been terminated by the TSA because of “suitability issues” that would disqualify them. Of these, 503 had failed to say they had been arrested or convicted of a crime–including 85 convicted felons. The total number also includes those who failed drug or alcohol tests or falsified employment applications. However, USCG Adm. (ret.) James M. Loy, the leader of the TSA, also told the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security that no TSA screener working at an airport has a red flag remaining on his or her record as of this month.”

“In testimony before the House Transportation aviation subcommittee in February, Kenneth M. Mead, Transportation Dept. inspector general, said audits have determined that as much as half of Pearson’s $18 million in expenses appear to be due to “wasteful and abusive spending practices.” – Aviation Week

There appears to have been no control over costs which rose from $104 million to about $700 million, a congressional subcommittee was told in February of this year.

Pearson rakes it in

Overall, the Pearson group of companies, in spite of its atrocious record in the creation of the TSA has nevertheless made record profits out of the business of terror:

“Pearson plc (NYSE: PSO), parent company of NCS Pearson, today announced its interim financial results for the six months ending June 30, 2002, reporting revenues of $2,756 million, a 3 percent decrease over 2001, and operating profit of $116 million, a 27 percent increase over the previous year.

NCS Pearson, which operates as a business of Pearson Education, reported underlying revenue growth of 10 percent and profit growth of 13 percent. NCS Pearson’s revenues are on track to grow 15 percent for the year, topping $1 billion in annual sales for the first time in its history.”

And in the rush to fight the ‘war on terror’ the thousands of workers who did the job of protecting the nation’s airports, prior to the creation of the TSA, have been completely forgotten. Effectively, they’ve been made the scapegoats for the Bush administration’s failure to prevent 911.

Will Pearson or the TSA be called to task? Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent supposedly to protect the people who fly the nation’s airlines, but judging by the evidence, so far, people have more reason to be afraid of flying now than before the creation of the TSA.

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