Reporting from Washington — The Border Patrol wants its leaders to talk to one another, and the agency is willing to pay some former government employees nearly half a million dollars to help make that happen.
In an example of how common it has become for government agencies to outsource seemingly routine tasks to former officials, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has awarded a "strategic consulting" contract worth up to $481,000 over five years to a small firm staffed by former agency insiders.
One of the three major tasks outlined in the deal is to "facilitate discussions among senior Border Patrol leaders" at conferences near the agency headquarters in Washington, according to the contract documents. The fees work out to about $240 an hour — not including travel expenses or the cost of the conferences.
Among those who will benefit from the contract are the agency's former commissioner and the husband of a current agency spokeswoman. It's legal as long as the officials observe a one-year ban on landing work from their former agency.
"It really is just contracting as usual," said Allison Stanger, a Middlebury College professor who detailed the explosive growth of government contracting in her 2009 book "One Nation Under Contract." "When contractors are doing so much of the work of government, these sorts of private companies are seen as extensions of government. When former agency employees are involved, the lines are blurred even further."
In a statement, Homeland Security Department spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the contract was intended to "solicit independent, expert input for CBP's ongoing efforts to design a 21st century border security strategic framework," and that the agency "will not utilize this or any other contracts to organize conferences for CBP officials."
The contract documents say the consultants will facilitate discussions at the conferences, not organize them.
In July, the agency requested proposals for strategic consulting. The request sought three senior consultants for a total of 389 hours a year, with four years of renewable options.
The consultants' role is to help Border Patrol leaders "discuss strategy, policy, outreach, development and the delivery of a unified corporate direction and message," the documents said.
After a competition, the contract was awarded to Sentinel HS Group, a 12-person company that includes Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and then U.S. Customs and Border Protection from September 2001 to November 2005.
The firm, which reported annual revenue of $3.2 million in contract documents signed last week, was founded by one of Bonner's top aides and includes three other former agency officials.
Among the firm's "senior consultants" is Michael Ivahnenko, who worked at the border agency from November 2003 to January 2008. He is the husband of Kelly Ivahnenko, a Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer based in Washington.
Kelly Ivahnenko said in an e-mail that she played no role in the contract award and did not speak to any agency decision-makers about it.
In addition to Michael Ivahnenko, Sentinel Chief Executive Brian Goebel said he would work as one of the agency's other two senior consultants, along with Joshua Kussman, a former senior policy advisor at the agency.
Goebel, who said he was speaking for all members of the firm, said Sentinel won the contract through "fair and open competition."
"There are circumstances in which the government needs outside assistance," he said. "From our vantage point, there are people who bring specialized knowledge. … Sometimes it's a question of extra arms and legs, to help people who have to do their day job."
Goebel said he worked as an advisor to Bonner at the agency in 2001.