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Thompson’s College Scores

Chairman Seeks $23M Earmark

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) is seeking earmarks worth millions of dollars for homeland security projects at the small Mississippi college that he attended, though the school could not explain what the earmarks are for and does not yet appear to have the capacity to provide the services that Thompson wants to fund.

In an earmark request for 2010 appropriations, Thompson’s Web site indicates that he is seeking $23 million for the “National Institute for Education and Training— at Tougaloo College for “an Operational Test and Evaluation Activity (OTEA) in Vicksburg, Mississippi.—

Tougaloo is a historically black college north of Jackson, Miss., with an enrollment of just less than 1,000 students and an annual budget of around $28 million, according to its most recent available tax records. Thompson was on the board of trustees until 2005 and is now listed as a “trustee emeritus.—

Thompson’s chief of staff, Lanier Avant, said the earmark is actually for a consortium of institutions “to develop engineering capacity in the region … for all kinds of engineering,— including civil and electrical engineering. Avant said the request includes Tougaloo, the Army Corps of Engineers facility at Vicksburg, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Jackson State University, Avant’s alma mater. It would be up to the four institutions to divvy up the funding and figure out the roles that each will play in implementing the earmark, he said.

The money would be “an addition to existing programs— at the institutions, Avant said. Tougaloo “has one of the most renowned engineering programs of all the [historically black colleges and universities] in the country. … It’s not like Tougaloo is some kind of new kid on the block,— he said.

But Tougaloo does not offer an engineering major. The school’s course catalog indicates that there is not a single engineering class being taught at Tougaloo this semester. The school does have a joint program with the Georgia Institute of Technology that allows students to transfer there to get their engineering degree after finishing their liberal arts coursework at Tougaloo.

George Armstrong, a chemistry professor who serves as the interim director of Tougaloo’s National Institute for Education and Training in Transportation Security, said he had heard about the earmark but had no details about it.

“That is something just coming out,— Armstrong said. “I wouldn’t have known about it except I just happened to be in a meeting— where the project was mentioned, he said last week. “It hasn’t been fully defined … [though] I know our name is associated with that.—

He asked a reporter to e-mail whatever documentation was available about the earmark request and referred calls to the school’s provost, Abdul Turay, who did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on the project.

Avant said, “We’ve been communicating with the [college] president’s office for months— about the earmark, adding, “we do think they are capable … otherwise the Congressman never would have requested it.—

Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan did not return a call requesting information about the project.

A spokesman at Oak Ridge said the lab has a running agreement with the Army Corps facility in Vicksburg to cooperate on a broad range of technical issues and has collaborated with local colleges as well. But he said the lab had no specific information about Thompson’s earmark request. An Army Corps spokesman had no information about the earmark, and the public affairs office at Jackson State did not return a message requesting comment.

Tougaloo’s national training center is a year-old project stemming from the 2007 legislation that Thompson shepherded through Congress to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. The bill required the Department of Homeland Security to establish the transportation security center of excellence with Tougaloo and five other institutions, including more established programs at San Jose State University and Rutgers University.

Armstrong said the center has thus far conducted two training exercises — one in Jackson and one at the Port Authority terminal in New York — for transit employees to increase their awareness of suspicious behaviors.

But Tougaloo did not run those programs, Armstrong said. “We went outside and hired a vendor who is approved by Homeland Security who carried out these trainings.—

Thompson has also requested an additional $3 million for the Tougaloo training center to establish a new “state and local cyber security training program.—

In March, Thompson also hosted a committee event at Tougaloo to help contractors learn how to do business with the DHS.

The agenda for the event included presentations by DHS Centers of Excellence, but only Tougaloo, Jackson State and one other historically black college were listed as presenters at that session.

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