So the credit crunch incinerated your job? The Department of Homeland Security is looking for a few good men and women. The work isn’t glamorous, but you could leave behind a legacy of saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

The federal government’s newest bureaucracy is persistently and vastly short the procurement officers it needs to ensure efficiency in the massive contracts it hands out to private companies who perform work on behalf of the public, from recruiting thousands of airport screeners to building temporary housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina, two government watchdogs told a congressional subcommittee last week.

Homeland security officials also turn to the private sector for help too quickly due to a sense of urgency or desire to make things easier resulting in contracts that impose few demands on private companies that earn hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to make the country safer, the duo added.

“We should not allow expediency to completely and consistently overrule sound business practices,” a DHS deputy inspector general, James Taylor, told a House subcommittee on oversight Sept. 17. “When that happens, we fail to get the right products and services at the right times for the right prices.”

A common theme in many of the audit reports criticizing DHS in recent years is that the dogma inside the Beltway after Sept. 11 encouraged preventing another attack or at least bracing for one at all costs. But hindsight shows how often the Homeland Security Department’s haste has at times caused it to broker contracts that are counterproductive to its mission let alone negligibly effective.

The subcommittee last week presented a table illustrating $15 billion in various DHS contracts believed to be plagued by wasteful spending or mismanagement or both, like Boeing’s $1.5 billion agreement to string sensors and cameras along newly constructed towers on the nation’s borders with Mexico and Canada, known as the Secure Borders Initiative.

In one twist of irony, homeland security officials sunk $52 million into a financial management system called eMerge2 that was supposed to fix accounting and contracting weaknesses in the department. It ultimately had to be scrapped in December of 2005 with “little to show for it,” a report from the Government Accountability Office concluded. The tab included $18 million just in contractor costs. Because DHS had originally intended to spend as much as $229 million on the project, the GAO considered it a good idea for homeland security to cut its losses despite how much had already been invested.

“The agency has made little progress since that time and has missed an invaluable opportunity to address existing financial management problems,” the report said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Inspector General Taylor testified last week that DHS hardly has even half the bare minimum of personnel it needs to properly manage the contracts, and 40 percent of those federal employees are eligible for retirement in five years. That means the department is much farther away from an ideal level of contract specialists.

And those figures, from April of this year, are considered to be an improvement since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003, the largest reorganization of the federal government since World War II. The department today has some of the biggest procurement needs of any other agency at the federal level having spent $12 billion last year alone on everything from airport security systems to Coast Guard ships. For entrepreneurs, the government’s promise of security in the homeland is a colossal market opportunity unto itself.

Hiring more bureaucrats to enforce the federal government’s litany of contract regulations may smack of a knee-jerk response to free marketeers who want Washington to invest greater trust in its private partners. But the lack of oversight, observers say, has led to widespread waste in a fledgling department that commits a whole 40 percent of its $47 billion budget to private-sector contracting for goods and services.

A GAO director, John Hutton, piled on to the inspector general’s testimony during last week’s congressional hearing telling the subcommittee that DHS has poorly planned many of its outsized contracts with private businesses and doesn’t clearly define what the companies are supposed to accomplish.

“While there are benefits to using contractors to perform services for the government – such as increased flexibility in fulfilling immediate needs – we and others have raised concerns about the federal government’s increased reliance on contractor services,” Hutton told the committee. “Of key concern is the risk associated with a contractor providing services that closely support inherently governmental functions: the loss of government control over and accountability for mission-related policy and program decisions.”

Among the other more infamous examples of perceived contracting mishaps by DHS that government auditors described during last week’s hearings:

  • The Transportation Security Administration hired a company called NCS Pearson to recruit tens of thousands of new airport screeners after Sept. 11. But the cost of the contract by its end had ballooned from $104 million to $742 million. Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow, an adviser to CIR, obtained secret audits in 2005 that showed Pearson invoiced extraordinary amounts of money to cover its expenses, from $377,273 in unsubstantiated long-distance calls to $1,180 for 20 gallons of Starbucks coffee.
  • Taylor of the DHS Inspector General’s Office told the committee that due to a desire to hurry task completion, homeland security officials will avoid requiring contractors to compete for business, which could otherwise ensure value for taxpayers. A $475 million contract to maintain equipment like metal detectors and X-ray machines used by border protection employees was awarded to the Chenega Technology Services Corporation, but it should have been competitively bid, auditors found. Chenega is a subsidiary of the Alaska Native Corporations, which enjoy an edge on competitors due to special designations, such as “disadvantaged small business,” sought for them by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. The veteran Republican congressman was indicted in July for trying to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts he allegedly received from the Veco Corporation, an Alaska-based energy company on whose behalf he’s intervened in Washington. The Native Corporations, meanwhile, don’t have to be run by Native Alaskans. Chenega’s contract was awarded on Sept. 11, 2003.
  • Veco, conversely, was acquired by an engineering and construction firm called CH2M HILL last year. CH2M, Taylor pointed out to the committee, was one of four companies, including Bechtel, that received noncompetitive contracts from FEMA worth $3.2 billion in 2005 to build housing units for Katrina victims. From those contracts the department’s inspector general found a “waste of government funds and questioned costs of $45.9 million” due to unclear invoices and an uncontrolled growth in costs. Those inadequacies were revealed in a report published last month.
  • The Transportation Security Administration hired the Unisys Corporation in August of 2002 to improve airport security and communications across the country. Unisys consumed $830 million of the contract ceiling in a short period of time, and by then, many airports were still operating with old telephone systems, dial-up Internet and radios that weren’t interoperable with other law-enforcement agencies or couldn’t get reception throughout the airport.
  • G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.