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Henson insists NOI contract proper


Saying he broke no rules to hire the Nation of Islam Security Agency, housing chief Daniel P. Henson III vowed yesterday to fight the federal government to keep the guards that have restored calm to Baltimore's crime-plagued public high-rises.

Even though the security agency affiliated with the Nation of Islam was the highest bidder, Mr. Henson said, the Housing Authority followed federal guidelines in selecting the company over 10 other firms last year for a $4.6 million contract.

"For years, security guards were selected on a low-price basis, ,, and we got what we paid for," he said at a news conference. "I can't imagine we want to go to where we were before where we had rent-a-cops with guns patrolling these buildings."

The housing agency acted on the advice of a federal housing official in setting up a "professional service" contract with NOI Security to patrol 16 publicly owned high-rise buildings in Baltimore, Mr. Henson said.

But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found Baltimore's system of ranking the bidders "arbitrary" and said it resulted in significantly higher costs to taxpayers.

The selection of NOI Security also drew criticism yesterday from U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who serves on a House subcommittee that plans to investigate HUD contracting practices.

Mr. Ehrlich issued a statement calling the "decision to award a high-bid contract" to NOI Security a "flagrant violation of federal regulations and a slap in the face to the American taxpayer."

Baltimore could have chosen NOI Security from four finalists even though it was the highest bidder. But the company had less experience than the low bidder, Wells Fargo Guard Services, which offered to do the job for $3.5 million, said HUD spokeswoman Vivian Potter.

The prices reflect the differences in hourly rates the firms charge for security guards: $11 for NOI Security; $8.23 for Wells Fargo; and $9.76 and $9.68 for the other two finalists, which each bid $4.1 million.

HUD reviewed the contract after receiving complaints from Wells Fargo, which also has sued the Housing Authority.

The suit, pending in Baltimore Circuit Court, accuses the authority of violating federal procurement rules designed to ensure that contracts go to companies with the best qualifications and prices.

The federal government has given the housing agency three options: repay $1 million, turn over security to Wells Fargo, or discontinue the NOI Security contract and reopen bidding.

At the time they selected NOI Security in May, Baltimore's housing managers emphasized that they wanted guards with experience and an understanding of public housing. A six-member panel chose NOI Security after reviewing proposals that the authority solicited amid criticism for a more limited, no-bid deal with the company.

Mr. Henson defended the choice of NOI Security as "fair, equitable and in the best interest of the housing authority." He called HUD's ruling "arbitrary and capricious."

The dispute comes as Congress is scrutinizing contracts with security agencies affiliated with the Nation of Islam -- a Muslim denomination led by Louis Farrakhan -- at public housing in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

City officials around the nation have credited the unarmed, bow-tie-clad guards with reducing violent crime and restoring respect in dangerous public housing projects.

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