Tuesday, November 06, 2007

How deep is the poop deck in this 'Public Pirate Partnership?'

Problems from start with ferry screening

November 6, 2007

By Rhiannon Meyers
The Galveston County Daily News
Copyright 2007

GALVESTON — Seawolf Marine Patrol employees have long been accused by ferry passengers of sleeping on the job, leaving their posts vacant for hours and refusing to screen cars, among other things.

State records reveal the Texas Department of Transportation found enough merit in the allegations to warrant numerous reprimands against the company in its 15 months of service.

Seawolf Marine Patrol security officers charged with screening vehicles at the Galveston-Bolivar ferry landing walked off in a pay spat in late September. The state had to find another company to take over the job.

Two days before that, transportation department officials said the pay issue had been resolved. “We are satisfied with the service the company is providing,” said department spokesman Norm Wiginton.

Meanwhile, Seawolf CEO Mike Fletcher said the company was not in financial trouble.

A month ago, The Daily News filed an open records request requesting all complaints filed with the transportation department about the security company.

Those records revealed Seawolf Marine Patrol was generating complaints and receiving reprimands the entire time it was in charge of screening.

Sleeping, Drugs And Gas Cans

The company was hired in June 2006 as part of a 2002 federal mandate that ferries increase security.

A stack of e-mails, memos, written phone messages and Seawolf-generated incident information sheets shows a history of complaints against screeners.

According to records, the transportation department reprimanded screeners for sleeping in their cars in the parking lot of the Harbor View Hotel and then threatening the hotel owner when she asked them to leave.

They were also reprimanded for taking excessive breaks, leaving their posts unmanned for up to 12 hours, for not screening when it was cold, for arguing with ferry deckhands, for wearing low “gangbanger style” pants, for jump-starting vehicles instead of screening, for directing racial slurs at other employees and for cursing at people trying to board the ferry.

Among the many allegations, the transportation department became especially worried when a screener found what he thought could be drugs in a bag, then turned them over to his supervisor who said he dumped them down a storm drain.

“To my knowledge no law enforcement has been notified about this incident,” said Rick Morris, the transportation department’s supervisor of ferry operations, in a memo dated January 2007.

“When Seawolf management became aware of this they started random drug tests on employees. I have also informed them via phone that any items found on TxDOT property must be reported to TxDOT and the proper law enforcement.”

The department was also worried about public opinion when screeners were caught confiscating gasoline cans and stockpiling them outside their command trailer, according to e-mails.

Gas cans are not allowed on the ferry. When screeners found gas cans, they gave passengers the option of emptying the gas and filling them with water or donating the cans, with the gas in them, to Seawolf Marine Patrol, for its own use, according to state documents.

If they chose the second option, screeners allowed passengers to board the ferry immediately, department e-mails indicate.

Transportation department officials stopped the practice, halting a “potentially volatile situation,” according to an e-mail written by Richard Stephenson, marine communication coordinator.

Morris told Seawolf supervisors in an e-mail: “This has the potential for very bad public perception and must stop.”

Karen Othon, a transportation department spokeswoman based in the Houston office, said screeners now simply tell passengers they can’t board the ferry with gas cans.

Firings And Complaints

The department’s e-mails reveal at least four Seawolf Marine Patrol employees were fired for a variety of violations, including sleeping on-duty, assaulting a Daily News photographer in September 2006 and cutting in line to board the ferry.

Most complaints, however, came from ferry passengers upset that they were chosen for screening. Some complained they thought the process was discriminatory, and accused the screeners of racism. E-mails indicate that the transportation department assured those passengers the they had been randomly chosen. Others were upset that the screenings were random. A phone message from a man named “Brad” questioned why the screeners didn’t profile “Islamic people.”

Still other passengers were upset that prolonged screenings caused them to miss the ferry, or that they were picked for screenings multiple times over a short period. At least one person complained that a Seawolf screener threatened to have him arrested if he didn’t submit to the inspection.

Othon said Seawolf Marine Patrol’s initial performance was very good, but problems escalated throughout the company’s tenure.

“When the service was no longer acceptable for us we started working to find a new contractor,” she said.

Department ferry operations supervisor Bill Mallini has said the state was “quietly looking” for a new contractor a week before the walk-off.

Bounced Paychecks

Employees as early as April were complaining to the state’s transportation department that Seawolf wasn’t paying them, according to department e-mails. Their paychecks were bouncing and their child support, which was supposed to be garnished from their checks, wasn’t making it to their children.

It’s not clear why the checks were bouncing — the company earned $1.05 million in taxpayer dollars in its 15 months at the ferry landing. A week before screeners walked off the job, transportation officials said they were satisfied with the service, and had been assured by the CEO that the pay issue had been resolved. Fletcher blamed the bounced checks on a single accounting error.

But, it’s obvious from records and e-mails that the transportation department has lost confidence in Seawolf Marine Patrol weeks before screeners finally walked off, leaving their post unmanned for hours.

In mid-September, the transportation department was looking for new contractors. Fletcher wasn’t answering calls. The department’s Houston-based purchasing materials administrator said if Fletcher couldn’t get them the information they’d requested, his bid would be declared “non-responsive.”

Fletcher has not returned repeated calls to his cell phone and office since screeners walked off the job. No one has been answering the phone at the company’s League City office.

The screenings were mandated by the federal government in 2004. Seawolf was the only company to respond to the state’s request for qualifications. Many Seawolf employees were rehired by the new company, Yale Enforcement.

The transportation department has heard no complaints about Yale Enforcement employees, Othon said.

“I think everything’s just running great,” she said. “I haven’t heard any problems with the new company.”

© 2007 The Galveston County Daily News: www. news.galvestondailynews.com

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