House Halts Radio Upgrade

Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:41pm

House appropriators have put a hold on plans to replace the Capitol Police’s outdated and unreliable radios, launching an investigation into what they say is a skyrocketing price tag for the project.

The move has sparked declarations of frustration and surprise from the Capitol Police and Senate appropriators, who say it could add months to an already years-long process.

But the House’s top Capitol Police appropriator, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), said in an interview that a recent presentation on the project lacked detail or sufficient explanation for a price jump from $35 million to $70 million.

Police Chief Phillip Morse gave one PowerPoint presentation that “had no backup, no information. It was presented as a take-it-or-leave-it type of project where there were no alternatives,” said Wasserman Schultz, who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

“I am just not willing to move forward with a very expensive radio plan when we’ve already been down that road on other government projects,” she added.

Subcommittee ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) also signed off on the investigation, which will be completed by the House Appropriations Surveys and Investigations staff.

Until that’s completed, the Capitol Police can’t submit their “obligation plan” to the House, which would lay out how they would spend the $10 million Congress already set aside for the project last year. Capitol Police need approval from both the House and Senate Appropriations committees before they can spend the money.

The unexpected delay is a blow to the Capitol Police department, which has been planning for a new radio system for years.

The department’s radios have long been the bane of officers. Radios frequently go dead in certain areas of the Capitol. They are decades old and are also open to the ears of anyone with a radio scanner.

But most importantly, police officials say, they can’t communicate with the modern radios of nearby law enforcement agencies. Local and federal agencies must work with the Capitol Police frequently, when the Capitol goes on alert for a wayward plane, or in the event of a terrorist attack on Congress.

Officials hoped to get the replacement plan off the ground soon, using the $10 million to set up the infrastructure for the equipment — such as extra space and rooms. And they hoped to start a search for a radio vendor by July 1, according to Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer.

Gainer, who preceded Morse as police chief, said he was surprised at the delay, though he stressed that he understood the committee’s desire for as much information as possible.

“While the police department has been working very hard to work around and patch the radio system, there does not seem to be compelling reason to stop everything,” he said. “We should push ahead and the second-guessing can continue.”

The Senate committees that oversee the Capitol Police’s management and budget apparently agree.

In a June 6 letter to Morse, the two committees asked that the project move forward and requested that “a plan for execution of the new system” be submitted by Friday.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) signed the letter to Morse. Feinstein and Bennett are the chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, respectively, while Landrieu and Alexander head up the Senate Appropriations Committee on the Legislation Branch.

The letter lists all the investigations and surveys already done on the project, including one that determined the requirements and another that analyzed the cost.

“We are writing to express our strong support for moving forward with the replacement of the Capitol Police radio system,” the letter begins. Later, the Senators add: “The requirements analysis was recently completed, and it is now time to move forward with execution.”

Gainer said Capitol Police officials estimate that the implementation would take three years with no further delay, including the 18 months for a vendor to actually set up the system.

In the meantime, the department uses several tactics to work around the handicap, Gainer said.

Almost all police cars have two radios: one for the Capitol Police and one for the Metropolitan Police Department. The Capitol Police command center includes radios for various local and federal agencies, while senior officers, along with the House and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, have radios with extra security precautions.

But almost all rank-and-file officers are stuck with the old analog radios, which are on a different frequency than the modern digital radios and are completely incompatible. The two systems work differently, with the digital option offering more channels and security.

On Wednesday afternoon, the three-member Capitol Police Board met and decided to appeal Wasserman Schultz’s decision. The three-member board — Gainer, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers — are drafting a letter that proposes some sort of compromise.

Gainer wouldn’t go into specifics.

But in a conversation before the board meeting, Gainer said he hopes the two sides can come to an agreement, one that could allow the Capitol Police’s plans to move forward while the House subcommittee continues its investigation.

But Wasserman Schultz said the investigation isn’t impeding any plans. The radio replacement implementation wasn’t imminent, she said, and she doesn’t want to spend any money on a plan that might be overpriced.

She also pointed to the Capitol Police’s fiscal history — for years, the Government Accountability Office has pointed out dozens of financial and administrative shortfalls. Members have repeatedly criticized the agency for mismanaging money.

Recent hearings and GAO reports have indicated that the department is improving, but there are still outstanding GAO recommendations yet to be implemented.

“The Capitol Police — although they have made recent efforts — have a horrendous track record,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It is not like I can just let them say, ‘Trust us’ and, ‘This project is in good and fiscally responsible hands.’ It’s not.”

The disagreement has also caught the attention of the House Administration Subcommittee on Capitol Security. Chairman Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) plans to have a hearing on the issue Wednesday, with both Capitol Police officials and independent experts.

Capuano said he isn’t completely up to date on all the issues, and supports the Appropriations Committee asking questions. But he also said he hasn’t seen any reasons the plan should not go forward. He pointed to another system failure Wednesday: One of the radio channels stopped working.

“It’s fair and reasonable to ask questions. We’re going to ask them,” he said. But, “at the moment, I have no reason to believe that the Capitol Police are wrong” about the project and the pricing.

Indeed, Landrieu felt that she has been kept up to date on the plan, said spokeswoman Stephanie Allen.

And Gainer warned that if Congress decides to go any cheaper, it risks implementing a system without necessary capabilities.

“We are building for a future. The system we have has poor interoperability. It is not secure. It has limited coverage. It has limited capacity,” he said. “Why go cheap now?”