Homeland Conference Circuit Hits Hawaii

Despite Homeland Budget Woes, Summit Offers Fun in the Sun

By BRIAN ROSS and RHONDA SCHWARTZ

Dec. 17, 2004 —

At the same time agents of the budget-strapped Department of Homeland Security worried about being able to afford gas for government cars, top department officials, including outgoing DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, could be found basking in the warm Hawaiian sun for a meeting they said was essential government business.

While officials reported a continuing freeze on hiring new agents and a halt to non-essential spending in chilly Washington, D.C., buffet lines, lavish luaus and a short walk to the beach awaited top officials at a sumptuous resort and spa on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu.

It was the setting for the second annual Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit and Exposition, with most of the cost paid for by corporations seeking government contracts. The rest of the travel expenses for the officials were picked up by the American taxpayers.

On the first day of the conference, ABC News cameras caught Ridge, along with several aides, relaxing by one of the five pools at the Honolulu resort. It was listed as "office time" on his official schedule.

Chuck Lewis, executive director of Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group, said homeland security has turned into a vast, wasteful pork barrel.

"Look at the opportunities lost. What else could the officials have been doing during that conference and during those days wasted?" he asked. "We have terrorists crashing embassy gates and these guys are sitting by the pool."

During the day, there were speeches seminars, mostly well attended, although the headline speakers offered very little that was new.

The Homeland Conference Circuit

The cost of the summit itself was estimated at $250,000, which major corporations helped pay for by becoming official sponsors.

"We're a platinum sponsor," a Ch2m Hill employee at the conference said. "And we'll definitely be a platinum sponsor next year. This is a great opportunity for us."

Many of the companies attending the conference were seeking a piece of the $11 billion the United States is now spending each year in the war on terror.

An employee of Security Resources, another company attending the summit, said the company's business had tripled since Sept. 11.

And other participants of the summit said it was just one of the dozens of conferences held in the last few months, part of a major element of the homeland security industry, where corporate officials seeking contracts and government officials awarding contracts have developed what some see as far too cozy relationships.

Face Time With Ridge

"And it's not just the place and the setting, it's the face time. Having face time with Secretary Ridge if you're a company is very, very important " Lewis said. "So of course you'd like to be a co-sponsor of the event or something like that. And be in the receiving line or get your shrimp when you're next to Tom."

To get to and from Hawaii, Ridge traveled in a Coast Guard executive jet, the cost of which his press aides said they did not know.

When asked by "20/20" as he left the conference, Ridge said in a news conference that he thought the trip was time and money well spent.

"I think it's a modest investment when you have the opportunity to not only talk with in terms of giving a speech, interact with question and answer period," he said. "And then have more private sessions with leaders of up to 40 different countries to deal with the war on terror."

But the foreign officials ABC News spoke with said they were not aware of any private sessions.

"Not at all," the Laotian ambassador, His Excellency Phanthong Phommahaxay, said it was a long breakfast, roughly lasting for one hour.

Ironically, the 10 highest-ranking Asian officials Ridge met with all came to Hawaii from Washington, D.C., themselves, where they work in their countries' embassies.

In fact, Ridge could have driven a few blocks down the street in Washington to meet them.

Clark Ervin, the inspector general of DHS until two days after our interview, said what ABC News found in Hawaii raised serious questions about homeland security priorities.

"It doesn't look good, clearly," Ervin said. "It seems to me the priority of this department ought to be spending every dollar on its core mission, and of course the core of that mission is counter-terrorism. And so every dollar that's spent on something that does not relate directly to the mission of the department is a dollar that's wasted."

Over the last year, Ervin has issued a series of startling reports on how tens of millions of dollars have gone unaccounted for at homeland security, including a Transportation Security Administration awards ceremony with bloated expenses of close to $500,000 -- $1,850 was spent for seven sheet cakes. $85,000 was paid to an event planner.

Lewis said there was a clear ethical line being crossed. "I don't begrudge anyone having a good time," he said. "When it's on the public's nickel and it's during the day and it's involving a life-and-death subject like homeland security, I'm offended by it."

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said she was simply disappointed.

"This agency in some ways, I think more than any, was created with such a sense of urgency, that we needed a real focus on making us safer at home," she said. "And when you see this it just, it really, it makes your heart sink. It's taking advantage of us."

ABC News' Maddy Sauer, Simon Surowicz and Jessica Wang contributed to this report.