DHS Flouts Experts’ Evaluations, Awards Mississippi with Spot on Shortlist

In deciding where to build a $451 million national laboratory to study bioterrorism and bio and agro-defense, the Department of Homeland Security asked a committee of experts to rate potential candidates on a strict set of criteria — but then disregarded the committee’s findings.

Beginning in January 2006, the DHS outlined a schedule to review 29 different locations throughout the country, then narrowed that list to 18, visiting each of the sites. Finally, the carefully selected committee of experts reviewed each possibility and ranked the sites according to the agreed-upon criteria.

The long process ended with the report handed off to DHS Undersecretary Jay Cohen, who weighed the findings of the committee and named six locations to a “short list” to be considered for the site.

According to an article published earlier today which cites “internal” DHS documents, the six shortlist candidates included a site in Flora, Miss. — which was ranked just 14 out of the 17 candidates for the lab.

From the AP article:

It is the inclusion of Flora on that list that one official for a rival bid, Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, called “very suspicious.”

Mississippi’s lawmakers include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees DHS, and Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that oversees DHS money. Each said he was not aware of the department’s deliberations about the lab location.

This all seemed a little odd to us, so we called the DHS.

Amy Kudwa, press secretary from the Department of Homeland Security, cited Mississippi’s “unique contributions” rather than its “existing resources” as the reason Cohen dismissed the higher-ranked candidates.

“The farther we get in the process, the more we use a qualitative judgment process,” Kudwa explained in response to questions as to why the assessments based on a set group of criteria and a panel of experts had not been used.

But according to Margaret McPhillips the press secretary for Sen. Cochran, who released a statement in 2007 when Flora was first named to the National Bio Agro-defense Facility shortlist, Mississippi’s selection was all about the great resources it has now.

“Sen. Cochran feels confident in the proposal Mississippi put forward,” McPhillips told TPMmuckraker. “We’re sure that when people look at the strengths of the Mississippi research facilities they will be convinced that we are the number one choice.”

The Gulf-States Bio and Agro-Defense Consortium, which led the proposal to bring the lab to Mississippi echoed those thoughts.

“It is no secret that Mississippi’s entire Congressional delegation is supporting this project,” Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority said. “Mississippi ought not to be criticized for having one of the most unified, bipartisan and supportive Congressional delegations in the nation. Some are trying to use the media to damage Mississippi’s application. The fact is, Mississippi and our Consortium partners represent the best proposal.”

But according to representatives of some of the failed proposals, DHS’ choice in Flora doesn’t make much sense.

“We’re a five state, twelve institution consortium,” said Stephen Schimpff who led the proposal to bring the lab to Beltsville, Md. “We had easy places to train staff and a pool of trained individuals ready to work in that kind of facility. We thought we had a very strong proposal.”

Indeed, the first two criteria listed on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facilities website is “a comprehensive research community that has existing research programs” and is “within proximity to skilled research and technical staff with expertise . . . and within proximity to training programs to develop skilled research and technical staff.” The Maryland facility had both, in spades.

Stranger still, was that their proficiency in these two areas seemed to count against them.

“In the end, the critique we got back was the high density of skilled personnel would create a lot of competition,” Schimpff told TPMmuckraker. “So it’ll be harder to find good people in Maryland than anywhere else.”

“That didn’t make a lot of sense to us.”