Changing of the Guard: What derailed Metro's contract with the world's largest security firm after just 44 days?

Less than two months into a three-year, $13.1 million contract to provide armed security at MetroLink stations, Metro and the Wackenhut Corporation abruptly parted ways. Another security company, the Swedish-based Securitas, has taken over the contract. Its guards began work at Illinois MetroLink locations last month and at all Missouri stations this past Monday.

"The contract is being terminated with NO FAULT," states the March 25 letter that was written by Metro's vice president of procurement, Larry Jackson, and cosigned by Wackenhut's president of security services. The letter was meant to insure that neither side would sue the other.

Whelan Security, based in St. Louis, handled Metro's security since the late 1990s, but when its contract expired at the end of 2007, "we wanted to upgrade the level of experience as well as the percentage of armed guards," says Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams. (Twenty percent of Whelan's guards were armed.) Although crime on the city's light rail system is low, Williams adds, "most folks have armed security guards when guarding people and property."

Mark Andresen

Last August, five security companies bid on the contract, including Whelan and Securitas. Though Wackenhut was not the lowest bidder, Larry Salci, then Metro's CEO, chose the international company headquartered in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, on the basis of technical merits. Under the terms of the agreement, Wackenhut promised to have 150 armed guards in place on MetroLink's 22 platforms by February 1.

Winning the Metro contract was a piece of good luck for Wackenhut, which last year lost one of its largest clients, the Exelon Corporation, after several of its guards at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania were discovered sleeping on the job.

In the wake of the embarrassment, Wackenhut's CEO resigned. But the company faced additional problems, including an August 2006 audit by Miami-Dade County, which revealed that Wackenhut over-billed the county's transit authority $1.6 million over a three-year period. The security firm is also bracing to hear the results of an audit in Milwaukee for not providing proper security on buses.

Metro was aware of Wackenhut's problems when it entered into the contract, but representatives from the world's largest security firm allayed Metro's concerns about those issues, says Williams.

Metro has weathered its share of adversity in recent months, culminating in the loss of a $26 million lawsuit against the original designers of the Shrewsbury MetroLink line. The public-relations nightmare caused Larry Salci to resign. He was replaced last December by retired United Van Lines chief Robert Baer.

The Wackenhut contract began to leave the tracks when the company realized it would be unable to meet the February 1 deadline they agreed to during December negotiations.

Clarence Harmon, director of Wackenhut's St. Louis office, wrote Metro executives in January, informing the transit agency that it was going to take longer than they'd expected to get its guards — many of whom had been imported from other locations — licensed to carry firearms in Illinois and Missouri.

"It takes three weeks to get an arms license," explains Leo Fincher, operations manager of Florissant's Brinkmann Security, Wackenhut's local subcontractor. (Because Metro is funded by taxpayer money, Wackenhut was required, by law, to share 14 percent of its contract with a small or minority-run business.)

The licensing process, Fincher says, requires classes and marksmanship tests. Wackenhut didn't receive the official go-ahead from Metro until January 16, which left only two weeks to get the guards in place. "That made it kind of impossible," argues Fincher.

On January 21, Harmon, a former St. Louis mayor and police chief, wrote to Metro executives: "We have attempted to act in good faith by purchasing the necessary uniforms, firearms, ammunition, and beginning the pre-hire process. We have incurred thousands of dollars in expenses by doing this."

Metro grudgingly granted Wackenhut a monthlong extension after learning the company had only 45 guards ready for duty on February 1.

In all, Wackenhut spent $275,000 to get its guards outfitted and trained, and another $4,000 in advertising to recruit new employees, according to Fincher. Brinkmann, a much smaller company, spent between $500 and $700 to prepare each of its eighteen guards. Neither company, says Fincher, was reimbursed.

"Why would they have been [reimbursed]?" asks Dianne Williams. "They were contractors and they were responsible for hiring their own employees."

Throughout the month of February, tensions began to build between Metro and Wackenhut, via a series of increasingly testy letters and e-mails, obtained in a Sunshine Law request by Riverfront Times.

Terry Lyles, Metro's director of procurement, became exasperated by what he considered Wackenhut's slowness in hiring sufficiently qualified guards. "Mr. Harmon," he wrote on February 15, "we have reached the point where we either move forward properly and in accordance with the contractual requirements, or we sever the relationship."

To that end, Lyles demanded that Harmon submit to Metro, within a week, a list of guards and the necessary paperwork that proved they were qualified to carry weapons in Illinois and Missouri.

Meanwhile, Metro officials grew dissatisfied with the guards already on duty. Willie McCuller, Metro's director of security and fare enforcement, wrote a stern letter to Harmon complaining about the performance of his guards.

"During the past two weeks," McCuller wrote on February 20, "I have personally observed several Wackenhut officers at the Laclede's Landing and Grand MetroLink Stations who were not performing as expected. They were not checking tickets, nor were they engaging the traveling public in any fashion. I brought this to the attention of Wackenhut's management and was informed this would be addressed both in person and via the monthly newsletter. To date, I have seen little or no improvement."

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