Planner Under Scrutiny For Huge Billings In Post-9/11 Project

San Diego — Sunnye L. Sims could be the richest meeting planner ever. But now a government inquiry will determine if her newfound riches were acquired appropriately.

Sims, an independent meeting planner based here, is at the center of a controversy over the cost of a government program to hire 60,000 airport screeners in the aftermath of 9/11.

In 2002, government contractor NCS Pearson, a subsidiary of Upper Saddle River, N.J.-based Pearson Education, awarded Sims' company, Eclipse Events, a no-bid contract to handle logistics for the massive project. According to a Defense Contract Audit Agency audit obtained by the Washington Post, Eclipse Events ultimately billed $24 million, out of which Sims paid herself compensation of $5.4 million and a pension of $270,000.

In less than one year, the cost of NCS Pearson's contract reportedly rose from $104 million to $741 million. The audit concluded that some $303 million of that amount was unsubstantiated spending, including $15 million attributed to Eclipse Events.

For example, auditors found documentation only for $326,873 of the $5.8 million that Eclipse Events billed for accounting, administration, consulting, management and contract labor.

Sims declined comment for this story. Her Washington-based attorney, Pamela Mazza, released the following statement: "After having successfully completed a commercial contract of N.C. Pearson [sic], Eclipse was contacted and then hired by Pearson to set up the logistical and administrative apparatus for interviewing and hiring new airport screeners for TSA. Eclipse completed its work on time and to the satisfaction of the prime contractor at the fixed price negotiated between Eclipse and Pearson."

David Hakensen, Pearson Education's head of corporate communications, said his company has not been notified of any investigation and that Pearson no longer works with Eclipse Events.

David Gallagher, executive vice president of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HelmsBriscoe, the site selection firm that handled hotel bookings for the project, said he was unaware whether the investigation involved his company.

"From our perspective it was a huge undertaking and we were proud of the job we did with it," he said.

Sims, a Texas native, worked for more than 10 years as an event planner for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in Hawaii and California prior to forming Eclipse Events in 2000. The company is no longer active. Sims currently runs the Celebrate Recovery program at the Seacoast Community Church in Encinitas, Calif.