A former D.C. official claims he was fired for calling attention to an allegedly problematic security contractor paid tens of millions to keep District government buildings safe.
In a lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court last week, Conan Bruce alleges that security contractor, Security Assurance Management Inc., failed to find guns and bombs brought into District government buildings as tests, charged the District more than the agreed upon contract amount due in part to its officers guarding an empty building, and whose employees feel asleep at their posts and worked under expired licenses.
Russell Stephens, who owns Security Assurance Management, says Bruce’s accusations leave out important context. (Read the company’s full statement here.) Officers without valid licenses, for example, were given special permission to work until their licenses could be renewed.
“Everything we’ve done for the government and our dealings, it’s always been above board,” he tells LL. “Nothing behind the scenes, no secret deals. It’s sad that he’s taken this path.”
Security Assurance Management has provided contracted security officers to the Protective Services Division (PSD) within the D.C. Department of General Services (DGS), since November 2014, and received approximately $38.91 million in fiscal year 2019—76 percent of PDS’ 2019 budget, according to Bruce’s lawsuit, which was first reported by the Washington Post.
The company also holds District contracts worth about $40 million for security at D.C. Public Schools.
Stephenscontributed the maximum $2,000 to At-Large Councilmember Robert White‘s 2020 re-election campaign, both as an individual and through his company. The donations are dated within months of when White’s Committee on Facilities and Procurement held an oversight hearing for DGS last November.
LL finds White’s predicament interesting considering his 2014 campaign proposal that “We should not only eliminate corporate contributions. We should eliminate all private contributions.” White has taken criticism recently for announcing that he will not participate in D.C.’s public financing program, which bars candidates from accepting corporate donations.
“Any allegation that our public buildings have lapses in security is of serious concern to me,” White writes via text message. “I am pursuing this through my oversight role. There are very serious allegations against Mr. Bruce and allegations from Mr. Bruce that I referred to the Office of the Inspector General and the Council’s General Counsel. [Security Assurance Management] donated to my campaign before any of these claims arose.”
During the oversight hearing last November, PSD employees suggested Bruce was seeking to steer contracts to companies where he had connections. Bruce was unavailable for an interview Friday, but he told the Post those allegations are “unfounded.”
Stephens’ company also donated to campaigns for Chairman Phil Mendelson in 2018, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso in 2016, and Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray in 2020.
Grosso says he is not aware of the alleged issues with Stephens’ company nor does he remember their donation to his 2016 campaign.
“If there were issues with a corporate donation of some sort, I would have dealt with it,” he says.
Asked about White’s about face on public campaign financing, Grosso says it’s “frustrating Robert’s not taking advantage” of the program, given his previous support. Grosso notes that in 2022, the law will bar campaign contributions from entities who have contracts with the D.C. government.
Gray’s campaign treasurer, Chuck Thies, says the company’s $500 donation came during a fundraising event last month and complies with all legal requirements for campaign contributions. Thies says the campaign has no plans to return the contribution in light of the recent lawsuit, but “if the circumstances change, and the company becomes derelict, obviously the campaign would reconsider the status of its contribution.”
Mendelson was unaware of the donation to his 2018 campaign. He says doesn’t read much into Stephens’ donation to White’s campaign.
“I think people make a connection between contribution and positions that almost always don’t exist,” he says.
Stephens says he started reaching out to councilmembers after talking to staff at the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development.
“Now that we’re a bigger company, yeah we’re going to contribute to other councilmembers or the mayor because we feel that’s our right to do those things,” he says. “We’re not asking for any favor, and we’re not asking [Robert White] for any favors.”
Stephens says he’s only met White a couple times, including once during a campaign fundraiser.
“I saw Robert White for maybe two minutes, shook his hand, ‘Hey sir, best of luck to you,’ stayed there for 20 minutes, and left,” he says. “I don’t know him, but he’s a good guy. I just felt good about contributing to his campaign.”
Bruce, who was hired in 2018 as associate director of the Protective Services Division within DGS, started poking around the agency’s security contracts soon after he started working, and found that they were “written in such a way as to unfairly favor [Securities Assurance Management]; expose D.C. properties to significant security risks; and threaten the safety of thousands of D.C. residents, D.C. government employees, and visitors,” according to his lawsuit.
Bruce also learned that Security Assurance Management was the lowest-scoring bidder by merit but was nevertheless awarded the lucrative contracts after the contracting officer, “replaced [Security Assurance Management’s] low scores with scores that would be sufficient to win the contracts,” his lawsuit says. The contracting officer claimed to have the authority to revise proposals and award contracts based on those revisions, the suit says.
Bruce began conducting random compliance checks and found that the company was “severely underperforming,” according to his lawsuit.
Stephens disputes many of Bruce’s allegations and emphasizes that Bruce ignored requests to meet or observed training sessions. He says his company inherited hundreds of security officers from the previous contractor and had little time to ensure each officer’s license was up to date.
As for the officers stationed at an empty building, Stephens says he is obligated to send officers wherever the D.C. government tells him.
“If we don’t have a guard at a building they tell us to protect, they’re going to penalize us,” he says. “So if they tell us to go to a building that’s empty, that’s not our fault.”
By December 2018, Bruce claims in his lawsuit, he had reported the company’s alleged failings to higher-ups in DGS several times—including to DGS Director Keith Anderson. Bruce recommended the District contract with a different company but made little progress.
In August 2019, Bruce enlisted the help of City Administrator Rashad Young, who during a call with Bruce and Anderson instructed Anderson to end Security Assurance Management’s contract and issue a new request for proposals (RFP).
Bruce’s lawsuit describes an October phone call with Yohance Fuller, who is a named defendant. During the call, Bruce expressed frustration with the agency’s failure to issue a new RFP and threatened to report his concerns to the inspector general and testify during the upcoming oversight hearing in front of White’s committee. In response, Bruce claims that Fuller “screamed and cursed over the phone,” according to Bruce’s lawsuit.
Bruce, in his lawsuit, says he intended to testify during the committee hearing on Nov. 14, but on Nov. 5 was handed a letter of termination.
DGS did not respond to a phone call seeking comment late Friday afternoon. But the agency told the Post that it was satisfied with Security Assurance Management’s performance and was with the company’s efforts to correct the issues Bruce raised. “Any breaches have been rectified,” Anderson told the Post.
This post has been updated to clarify comments Russell Stephens made about his communication with the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development.