Ferry Security Isn’t Very Secure

A security company criticized in a state audit last year has a $3.6 million annual contract with the city to work on the troubled Staten Island Ferry, even though its contract with the state Office of General Services was terminated last year when it didn’t supply the state with proof that employees were qualified.

State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, in an audit released last summer, said Bronx-based Tristar Patrol Services was one of seven firms that billed the state more than $4.4 million for services they didn’t perform. (Private companies supply security at state facilities ranging from the Department of Motor Vehicles to the Workers Compensation Board.) The findings were referred to State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Tristar is being audited by the New York Secretary of State.

In a survey of 17 Tristar employees, Mr. Hevesi found that none was in compliance with the requirements for urine drug screening and that 82 percent didn’t have alien-registration forms on file. Of the 17, eight were not registered with the New York Department of State, as required by law.

Mr. Hevesi also found that 88 percent of the Tristar employment files sampled by his staff had no proof that the security officers took basic guard training, which includes fingerprinting. Failure to provide training is a violation of the New York State Security Guard Act. Also, failure of an employer to have an alien-registration form on file is a violation of federal laws.

Mr. Hevesi said that “state facilities, employees and the public they serve were at risk because guard-company managers provided dozens of guards to state agencies, including the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, who may have been convicted felons.”

City Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall issued a statement saying that her agency does not independently verify the information that is submitted by Tristar, including whether criminal-background checks were performed on the guards. But Mr. Hevesi admonished state agencies to do precisely the opposite. “We caution [state] managers not to rely on certificates of compliance [from employers] as proof that guards are qualified under the contract. The managers should establish a system to ensure each guard meets all contract requirements,” Mr. Hevesi said.

Mr. Hevesi warned that “quality guards are essential to sound security in New York State, especially after the World Trade Center attack. Despite the increased security risk, [state managers] have chosen to seek and accept guards with reduced qualifications. The more the specifications are relaxed, the higher the risk for problems.”

Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for the Mayor, said that Tristar was outbid by two other companies for city work, but the competitors were disqualified because they didn’t have enough experience or proper references.

Mr. Hevesi’s report said that Tristar’s contract with the state was terminated after the Office of General Services discovered that there “wasn’t enough evidence” to support claims that the guards were qualified at the level the company claimed. “Although officials at O.G.S. asked Tristar managers for evidence to support the fact that guards were qualified, Tristar didn’t supply it,” Mr. Hevesi said.

The comptroller examined the records for 12 Tristar employees working for the O.G.S. “Executives at Tristar gave the [O.G.S.] statements certifying that ten of these twelve guards were qualified at various levels,” the audit stated. This, the audit said, gave office managers “a sense of security that the guards were qualified.” The comptroller’s office, however, found that there wasn’t enough evidence to support those claims.

One state official said that the company “was almost impossible to reach.” The Observer had the same problem. The number listed on the company’s incorporation papers in Albany was disconnected, and another number supplied by a city official gave a busy signal for an entire day.

Ultimately, after interviewing several guards, The Observer found a number not in the D.O.T.’s files and left a message for Tristar’s director of operations, Gary Zimmer. Mr. Zimmer did not return The Observer’s calls.

The ferry became the focus of front-page headlines in early August when the U.S. Attorney announced the indictments of ferry workers resulting from last October’s crash, which killed 11 people. The pilot at the wheel when the accident occurred, Richard Smith, entered a guilty plea on manslaughter charges.

Meanwhile, problems at the ferry persist.

During a recent visit to the ferry terminal on Staten Island, The Observer spotted Tristar guards buying coffee and newspapers at 9:25 a.m., with a terminal full of commuters waiting for the next boat. Not all the guards were equipped with radios or walkie-talkies. Few carry guns.

One bomb-sniffing dog, from another security company, was doing tricks for tourists last week under the guidance of his trainer. The tourists were shouting, “Lay down! Sit up! Roll over!”