By: Edward T. DeLisle
Over the last several years, the scrutiny over federal small business programs has grown. That scrutiny has led to changes in policy and legislation designed to curb potential fraud in the procurement process. Because these changes have been implemented in such a short period of time, however, it is not unusual for the government to issue solicitations for small business set-aside contracts that are confusing, or even contradictory. In Commandeer Construction Company, Inc., B-405771, December 29, 2011, that is precisely what occurred resulting in a successful protest.
Commandeer Construction involved a solicitation that was set aside for Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSBs), a program that has experienced much change in recent years. In 2006, the VA was given the authority to restrict competition to SDVOSBs as part of the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Act (the "Act"). 38 U.S.C. 8127(d). As the GAO explained in Commandeer Construction, pursuant to the Act, an SDVOSB set-aside contract may only be issued to entities listed in a database of veteran-owned small businesses maintained by the VA. The VA has chosen to use what it has termed its "Vendor Information Pages" ("VIP"), which can be found at www.vetbiz.gov, as its official listing of veteran-owned and service-disabled, veteran-owned concerns.
Subsequent to issuance of the Act, the VA issued VAAR 804.1102, which states that all VOSB and SDVOSB entities must be listed in its VIP database by January 1, 2012 in order to be eligible for set-aside contracts for such entities. By December 31, 2011, all VOSB and SDVOSB entities must not only be listed, but must also be "verified," in order to receive new contract awards under the Veteran's First program, a program operated exclusively by the VA. While firms were once permitted to self-certify their status as VOSBs and SDVOSBs, as part of Veterans Benefits Act of 2010, the VA instituted a more rigorous qualification process. Consistent with this new review procedure, which was designed to weed out fraud, the VA's "Center for Veterans Enterprise" ("CVE") was given the authority to render eligibility determinations for these programs. If a firm wished to obtain a set-aside contract as a VOSB or a SDVOSB entity, it would have to be verified by CVE.
In an effort to assist in the transition from a self-certifying system to one requiring government approval, the VA issued what it called its "Memorandum from VA Acting Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Procurement Policy, Systems Oversight and Accompanying Class Deviation from VA Acquisition Regulation" (the "Memorandum"). The Memorandum referenced what the VA described as a "class deviation." Based upon this class deviation, any "apparently successful offeror" that had not already been verified by CVE, could become verified on an expedited basis, and obtain an award of a VOSB or SDVOSB set-aside contract, provided CVE approved its status. Later, the VA clarified its position regarding who may qualify for a “class deviation,” taking the position that a company was not eligible for “either award or Fast Track Verification," unless it was visible in the VA’s VIP database. Commandeer Construction addressed the interplay between the class deviation identified in the Memorandum and the VA’s attempt to subsequently clarify what it meant.
In Commandeer Construction, the VA issued an IFB for a construction contract that was set aside for eligible SDVOSB firms. The solicitation stated that the award would be made to an SDVOSB firm that had “been verified for ownership and control and [was] so listed in the [VIP] database.” The IFB also included the “class deviation” language referenced above. What was not included as part of the IFB, however, was the Memorandum (and accompanying deviation), or the clarification made to the deviation, which was issued after the fact.
On August 8, 2011, the protesting party, Commandeer Construction, submitted an application to the CVE for approval as an SDVOSB. Thereafter, on August 30, 2011, Commandeer submitted its bid. As its bid was the lowest of those submitted, Commandeer was in line for an award. As it was not listed in the VIP database, however, the contract specialist for the VA intended to contact Commandeer for purposes of explaining the process of obtaining expedited verification.
Prior to contacting Commandeer, the VA contract specialist apparently learned of the clarification for the first time and discussed its meaning and significance with other VA officials. Based upon these discussions, the VA contract specialist decided that Commandeer was ineligible for award and informed it of such by letter dated August 31, 2011. At the time, CVE had not rendered a final decision on Commandeer’s SDVOSB eligibility.
Commandeer protested VA’s decision, taking the position that rejecting its bid was improper based upon the expedited review procedures outlined in the solicitation. The VA countered that the deviation clause, upon which Commandeer relied for potential eligibility, was never meant to apply to entities that were absent from the VIP database. According to the VA, the deviation clause was merely an effort to provide assistance to those firms that had already self-certified, but had not yet been CVE verified under the new review procedures. Commandeer Construction at 4.
The GAO based its decision on a strict reading of the solicitation. The deviation clause in the solicitation specifically stated that “the apparent successful offeror” would be given an opportunity to have its SDVOSB status reviewed on an expedited basis, if it was not “currently listed as verified” in the VIP database. While the VA may not have intended for the deviation to apply to firms not already listed in its VIP database, the GAO concluded that the solicitation itself did not provide that qualification. As such, Commandeer’s understanding that it could qualify for award pursuant to the expedited review procedure was reasonable. Based upon this finding, the GAO recommended that the VA complete its review of Commandeer’s verification documents and, if found to be eligible for SDVOSB status, award it the contract.
As the government continues to alter its approach in exercising control over small business programs, mistakes, such as those in Commandeer Contracting, will happen. Contractors must exercise care in reviewing and responding to any solicitation. If, during the course of the review process, an ambiguity is discovered, bring it to the attention of the contract specialist, contracting officer, or source selection authority immediately. Doing so will benefit all bidders and quite possibly prevent a pre-bid protest. For those ambiguities that are not readily detectible, and are only revealed at the time of contract award, be prepared to discuss your concerns with an attorney familiar with such issues right away, as a protest is likely your only source of recourse. For those participating in the government’s various small business programs, the fast-paced nature of regulatory change has opened these programs up to issues such as those presented in Commandeer Contracting. Bid and beware.
Edward T. DeLisle is a Partner in the firm and a member of the Federal Contracting Practice Group.