Security Issues Plague OAK 

Political patronage seems to have trumped safety concerns within the Port Commission.

As the nation struggles to ensure that the horrific events of September 11 never recur, Oakland has once again made national headlines of the worst sort. This time the culprit is Oakland International Airport, which has been charged with having one of the most porous and inept security systems in America.

At the beginning of Mayor Jerry Brown's administration, the television news magazine 60 Minutes characterized Oakland as a festering, bullet-ridden ghetto, prompting outraged protests from civic leaders. But on September 16, when the show returned to town and exposed airport security as hopelessly lax and casual, no one could raise a word of protest. This time, however, Oakland didn't have to be a poster child for urban ineptitude. Local officials had a chance to take corrective action -- but succumbed instead to politics as usual.

In August, just weeks before the World Trade Center attack, the Port Commission, which runs the airport, sat down to decide whether to keep ABC Security, the company that has provided curbside security at the airport for seven years, or go with one of five other companies competing for the contract. If a fraction of what is listed in an analysis by the port's own staff is true, one would think that ABC Security's duties as the guarantor of passenger safety would be removed from them in short order. Instead, the Port Commission read every line of the report by its own staff -- and then extended the company's contract for another year.

Critics claim that ABC Security kept its contract not because of its job performance, but because of its connections to East Bay politicians. Indeed, a month ago this might have been seen as a routine case of local politicians handing out favors to their friends. Now, however, as emergency workers dig bodies from the rubble of New York, Oakland's leaders may come to be seen as playing games with people's lives.

As the Port Commission prepared to award the airport security contract this summer, two companies emerged as the clear front-runners: ABC Security and Sentinel Security. Each company has a roster of powerful supporters. Ana Chretien, the owner of ABC Security, is a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and has had a long and close association with fellow chamber member and port commissioner Peter Uribe. In addition, Chretien has close ties to Ignacio De La Fuente, the powerful president of the Oakland City Council; so far, Chretien has contributed $2,000 to De La Fuente's campaign to replace Don Perata as state Senator.

Sentinel Security, meanwhile, has its own powerful patron: US Representative Barbara Lee, who until 1998 actually owned the company. In 1996, when Lee was running for state Senate, her opponent, Bob Campbell, claimed that Lee used her connections to then-representative Ron Dellums to secure a number of federal contracts for her company, including an annual $900,000 deal for security services with the Department of Energy and an $814,000 deal to run a motor pool at the Oakland Army Base. In addition, Campbell charged, Lee failed to report all but $10,000 of the income she received from these contracts.

As the security contract came up for renewal, the Port Commission charged its Airport Landside Operations Committee with preparing an analysis of the effectiveness of ABC Security and comparing its performance with that of five other contenders vying for the contract. The final report was damning. According to the port staff, the company was paying wages as low as $7.25, which seemed in conflict with the new living-wage policy the port was attempting to implement. The report criticized employee relations at ABC Security as well as its record of minority hiring. Finally, the report suggested that ABC was double-billing the airport by as much as $53,000 a month.

ABC Security quickly denied all these allegations. "It's not like ABC is underpaying its employees," says Ray Thrower, the company's general manager. "All of the employees that are required to make a living wage make it. We meet the requirements that are set with all of our contracts. [As for the double-billing accusations], that's ridiculous. We've done business with the port for the last seven years. If you have such a long-term relationship with somebody, why would you double-bill them? We're not some fly-by-night security service. ABC Security has been getting a lot of bad press, but we've been here for 33 years."

On the basis of its research, port staff was asked to make a recommendation to the Port Commission as to which company should be awarded the curbside security contract. Not surprisingly, ABC Security was not the recommendation, but to the surprise of most observers, neither was Barbara Lee's former company Sentinel Security, which came in second.

As its first choice, the staff chose a company called Universal Distributors, which is owned and operated by the family of Yusef Bey, the local Black Muslim leader and former mayoral candidate whose string of Your Black Muslim Bakeries keeps the East Bay stocked with bean pies. The choice was beyond surprising.

In 1996, Bey convinced the Oakland City Council to lend him $650,000 to finance another of his companies, Elijah Muhammad Health Services, which would provide home health care to seniors and the disabled. At the time, City Councilmembers De La Fuente and Dick Spees both had some reservations, mainly because Bey owed $60,000 in back taxes and had virtually no collateral to guarantee repayment. But the council went ahead with the loan, and Elijah Muhammad Health Services was on schedule to receive another $1.1 million in loans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Within a year, however, Bey's company came under blistering criticism for using the city's loans to personally enrich its own officers. Why, then, did the port's staff recommend Universal, a company they must have known had no chance of winning the contract? Some City Hall insiders believe that the staff had actually wanted to award the contract to Sentinel, and set up Universal as a straw man in order to insulate themselves from charges of favoritism. Others claim that staff was effectively punting the ball, selecting the one candidate no one wanted and leaving the dynamics of patronage and dealmaking to the Port Commission.

At the August 7 meeting to award the security contract, several commissioners rose to defend ABC Security, arguing that the staff's allegations against the company were vague and imprecise -- and in the end, the commission decided to give ABC another year while it figured out a better system of evaluation. "Our staff provided a report that was incomplete, and they couldn't answer our questions at the meeting," says Port Commissioner John Protopappas. "The staff was completely unprepared, and because this process has been so politicized, it's important for staff to be as professional as possible. I was extremely disappointed that they did an eighteen-month analysis, only to provide incomplete reports."

Interestingly, there was another contender on the staff's list, one that at least in hindsight may have been the wisest choice: The Alameda County Sheriff's Department also bid for the security services, but Commissioners balked at the projected expense, which totaled more than $5 million. Now, however, the Oakland airport must face charges that it rejected experienced sheriff's deputies and placed the security of millions of aviation passengers in the hands of rent-a-cops that make less than $10 an hour.

All this may change soon, however. The Port Commission has been meeting with officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and is in the process of implementing stricter security protocols, and eleven Oakland police officers have already been dispatched to beef up airport security.

Meanwhile, there is another security question looming at the Oakland airport. While ABC is responsible for curbside security, a consortium of airlines pay for the services of the Huntleigh Security company to screen passengers for weapons; since the events of last week, many employees have come forward and complained that their training consists of watching instructional videos for a few days, and their salaries are no more than $7 an hour. As the airport deals with these and other urgent issues, port officials will have to live down the public impression that they placed the financial interests of their friends higher than the safety of their passengers.

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