Tiny school gets no-bid work from Homeland Security

Agency deems Mercyhurst College the sole source to provide training for intelligence analysts

A tiny college located in the hometown of ex-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is negotiating a no-bid contract to train intelligence analysts for the sprawling agency. In doing so, the agency is short-circuiting a selection process that would normally include a host of bigger and better known institutions already working in that field such as George Washington University and Georgetown University.

Late last month, the Department of Homeland Security filed notice it was entering into negotiations on a sole source basis with Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., to develop and run an intelligence analyst certificate program for the department. Mercyhurst is a liberal arts, private, Catholic school located on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. The school has an enrollment of about 3,100.

(A new academic building scheduled to open this fall on a satellite campus of the college will be named the Tom and Michele Ridge Health and Safety Building. School officials say the decision to name the building in honor of the Ridges was made several years ago when the Erie native, who was then governor of Pennsylvania, helped secure $2 million in financing for the project. )

The total cost of the contract could not be determined from the few details released by DHS about the deal.

The contracting officer handling the Mercyhurst deal for DHS said she was not at liberty to discuss any details, but said that “a number of other vendors” had expressed an interest in bidding on the project after the sole source notification became public on February 25.

“There are some issues,” said DHS Contracting Officer Brenda Musgrove when contacted by telephone. “I can’t really say anything more about it.”

DHS spokesman Tom Burke said he would not talk about the contract on the record. Earlier, Burke did talk to Homeland Security Daily, a newsletter published by Congressional Quarterly, which first reported the school’s pursuit of the contract. He told the newsletter that the department’s decision to negotiate exclusively with Mercyhurst for the training program was based on speed, cost and flexibility.

“Mercyhurst was the one that could meet our timelines, and bring a program they had established to the local training location at no additional cost,” Burke told the newsletter.

Both George Washington University and Georgetown University are located in Washington, D.C., not far from the Department of Homeland Security. The newsletter said Mercyhurst would establish a local facility for the program in Alexandria, Va., just outside of Washington.

Mercyhurst has five professors in its Institute for Intelligence Studies, which was formally established in February 2004. The college has offered baccalaureate degrees in intelligence analysis since 1992. In 1995, using an established master’s degree in Administration of Justice, Mercyhurst created an intelligence concentration in that program.

The intelligence faculty at Georgetown has nearly 70 professors and the program at George Washington has 25.

Mercyhurst seems to have a penchant for secrecy. It has a long standing policy of not releasing the names of the members of its board of trustees, according to Mary Daly, the board’s secretary. She said the names of members are only released with the approval of the chair of the trustees or the college president.

Mercyhurst recently received more than its share of unwanted headlines when at least six men came forward to accuse President William P. Garvey of sexually abusing them when they were minors, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Garvey denied the charges but resigned on Feb. 23; the college is in the process of finding a new president.

Was it legal?

One government contract expert said the deal is highly unusual and might be “illegal.”

“It seems to have all the indications of a political payoff of some kind,” said Alan Grayson, director of the Grayson & Kubli law firm, which represents clients on government contract issues. “There are specific rules on what qualifies for a sole-source contract, and those rules don’t seem to even remotely apply in this case.”

In order to properly issue a sole-source contract, Grayson said, DHS needs to effectively prove there is only one “responsible” source for a good or service, and no other vendor will satisfy the agency’s requirements. He said that under federal contract regulations, “responsible” simply means that if an award is made to a contractor, the contractor can be expected actually to do that work.

“George Washington and Georgetown clearly are responsible sources,” said Grayson. “Saying that there is only one source for these services looks like quite a stretch.”

Grayson added that DHS and other federal agencies are increasingly using sole-source contracts, often citing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a reason.

“The regulations contain pretty specific rules on when the exceptions can be applied, and when they can’t,” Grayson said. “The exceptions are meant for specific situations where there might be companies with certain patents or copyrights, or where it can be argued it is a matter of national security to go with a certain vendor. Unfortunately, since Sept. 11th DHS and some other agencies have gotten completely carried away in invoking these [sole-sourcing] exceptions where they clearly don’t apply.”

“We’ve Earned It”

The founder and head of the Mercyhurst intelligence program, Robert Heibel—who was deputy chief of counterterrorism at the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the 1980s—takes exception to suggestions that the sole-source contract being negotiated by DHS with Mercyhurst is improper.

“We’ve always done it the old fashioned way,” he said. “We’ve earned it.”

Heibel said Mercyhurst had nothing to do with the decision by DHS to sole-source the contract.

“We were totally unaware that this would be a no-competition contract, and it was DHS’s decision to make,” Heibel said. “We would have welcomed the competition.”

Heibel said that the DHS work grew out of an earlier contract the college secured with a huge government contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton. Mercyhurst began conducting training courses for intelligence analysts at the company in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., last August. Booz Allen currently supplies several hundred intelligence analysts to departments and agencies throughout the federal government, including DHS.

He said two DHS analysts were invited to the first Booz Allen training sessions, which produced their first class of 17 graduates earlier this month.

The two DHS employees were from the department’s Office of Information Analysis, which has a major intelligence analysis responsibility. Heibel said Mercyhurst subsequently learned that OIA was talking with various academic institutions about providing intelligence training for their analysts. Based on that information, the college contacted the director of training at OIA and invited him to visit the school, which he did.

Heibel said that during the visit he discussed the intelligence analyst certificate program. He said the DHS training director subsequently informed the college that he had discussed the certificate program with his boss, who had told him to go ahead with a prototype program with DHS starting in March 2005.

Heibel conceded that Georgetown and George Washington are top schools and offer strategic studies courses, but said neither they nor any other college or university in the world offers programs that provide graduates with entry-level skills needed to produce various levels of intelligence products for government and the private sector. He said Mercyhurst graduates are equipped with an intelligence toolkit that they can employ as they go into the real world.

Neither Georgetown nor George Washington officials returned phone calls seeking reaction to the contract.

Many of the Mercyhurst intelligence analyst program’s more than 160 graduates work for federal agencies, including DHS, according to Heibel.

In fact, he said, it was two graduates of the Mercyhurst program who came up with the set of playing cards used to identify former Iraqi leaders during the war and ongoing occupation there by U.S. forces.

Whether Mercyhurst’s touted record of success is enough to justify receiving the sole-source contract remains debatable. What is clear, however, is that some of the institutions most capable of giving Mercyhurst a run for its money—and possibly saving taxpayer money in the process—were not invited to compete.

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