Contractors Now Required to Prepare a Code of Business Ethics and Conduct and to Implement Internal Controls and Ethics Training

We published an article on March 5, 2007, reporting a proposed amendment to the FAR that would require government contractors to prepare a Code of Business Ethics and Conduct.  On November 23, 2007, a final rule was published in the Federal Register and two new FAR clauses became effective on December 24, 2007. These new clauses are very important to all federal government contractors and they mandate the preparation of a Contractor Code of Business Ethics and Conduct (FAR 52.203-13) and the Display of Hotline Poster(s) (FAR 52.203-14) if a contractor receives an award in excess of $5 million with a period of performance of at least 120 days.  This is yet another example of the unending criminalization of the federal procurement process that makes it very risky for any contractor to do business with the federal government unless the contractor keeps up-to-date on the rules.  It is anticipated that suspension and debarment will be among the potential consequences of a failure to comply with these new rules, and a contractor’s record of integrity and business ethics may now become part of the contractor’s performance record that is evaluated as part of the contract award process.

FAR 9.104-1(d) provides that contractors must have “a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics.” In furtherance of that requirement, the new policy explained in FAR 3.10, provides that “Government contractors must conduct themselves with the highest degree of integrity and honesty” and that “Contractors should have a written code of business ethics and conduct.”  To promote compliance with the code of business ethics and conduct, contractors should have an employee business ethics and compliance training program and an internal control system that—

(1) Are suitable to the size of the company and extent of its involvement in Government contracting;

(2) Facilitate timely discovery and disclosure of improper conduct in connection with Government contracts; and

(3) Ensure corrective measures are promptly instituted and carried out. (See FAR 3.1002).

Specifically, the bew FAR requirements for the code of business ethics and conduct require that it be:

1. in writing;

2. issued within 30 days of the contract award (unless the contracting officer allows a longer time period);

3. furnished to each employee engaged in performance of the contract; and

4. that the contractor "promote" compliance with its code of business ethics and conduct.

Although the policy expressed in FAR 3.1002 applies as guidance to all government contractors, the mandatory requirements are explained in the new clauses found at FAR 52.203-13 and FAR 52.203-14.  All contractors receiving awards in excess of $5 million where the period of performance is 120 days or more must have a code of business ethics and conduct, but the requirements for a training program, awareness and compliance program, and internal controls, do not apply to small business concerns.  All contractors who expect to receive awards, or subcontracts, in excess of $5 million, with periods of performance of 120 days, would be well advised to consult with legal counsel to obtain advice as to what must be done to comply.  There is nothing to be gained by waiting for a contract to be awarded, given the thirty day time period to prepare the code of business ethics and conduct (unless extended by the contracting officer), and the document should be prepared and distributed as soon as possible.

It is important to understand that these new rules are being implemented because the Federal Government has found that voluntary disclosure has not worked and has concluded that mandatory requirements are needed.  We will be advising our clients to provide ethics training, even if they are small business concerns, to make it clear that they take these new requirements seriously.  If a company principal or an employee commits a criminal act in the performance of a government contract, the company will be viewed in a more favorable light if it demonstrates that it has already implemented the requirements of the new regulation.  Just as it does little good to repair a cracked sidewalk after someone has tripped and broken a leg, it does little good to implement ethics requirements and training after a violation has occurred.

A summary of the mandatory requirements are as follows:

A contractor must have a written code of business ethics and conduct in place within thirty days of the award of any contract in excess of $5 million.  The time may be extended by the contacting officer and the requirement does not apply to existing contracts that were awarded before December 24, 2007, or to task orders awarded under those contracts.

A copy of the code of business ethics and conduct must be furnished to each employee involved in the performance of the contract. In addition, the contractor is required to promote compliance with its code.

Unless the company is a small business concern, and has so certified in the bid or offer submitted in response to the solicitation, the contractor must establish an ongoing business ethics and business conduct awareness program, and an internal control system, within ninety days after award of the contract.  This time period may also be extended by the contracting officer.

The internal control system is intended to facilitate timely discovery of improper conduct in connection with Government contracts, and to ensure that corrective measures are promptly instituted and carried out.  Although the regulation is not very explicit about the structure of the required internal control system, examples of what is required include (1) Periodic reviews of company business practices, procedures, policies, and internal controls for compliance with the Contractor’s code of business ethics and conduct and the special requirements of Government contracting; (2) An internal reporting mechanism, such as a hotline, by which employees may report suspected instances of improper conduct, and instructions that encourage employees to make such reports; (3) Internal and/or external audits, as appropriate; and (4) Disciplinary action for improper conduct.

The contractor is required to include the substance of the clause found at FAR 52-203-13 in subcontracts that have a value in excess of $5 million and a performance period of more than 120 days, unless the subcontract is for a commercial item or is for work entirely performed outside of the United States. (Author’s Note: Contractors should be aware that a “purchase order” qualifies as a “subcontract” for purposes of this clause, subject the exceptions noted in the preceding sentence).

The second clause, found at FAR 52.203-14, requires the Contractor to prominently display hotline posters in common work areas within business segments performing work under this contract and at contract work sites, (i) any agency fraud hotline poster or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fraud hotline poster identified in paragraph (b)(3) of this clause; and (ii) any DHS fraud hotline poster subsequently identified by the Contracting Officer. In addition, if the Contractor maintains a company website as a method of providing information to employees, the Contractor is required display an electronic version of the poster(s) at the website. As in the case of FAR 52.203-13 discussed above, the substance of this clause must be included in subcontracts that have a value in excess of $5 million and a performance period of more than 120 days, unless the subcontract is for a commercial item or is for work entirely performed outside of the United States. (Author’s Note: If the Contractor has implemented a business ethics and conduct awareness program, including a reporting mechanism, such as a hotline, then the Contractor need not display any agency fraud hotline posters as required in paragraph (b) of this clause, other than any required DHS posters).

A supplement to the new requirement for a Code of Business Ethics and Conduct is also under consideration at the request of the Department of Justice. The proposed additional rule was published on November 14, 2007 and comments must be submitted by January 14, 2008. This Proposed Rule imposes additional requirements regarding codes of business ethics and conduct, including notification requirements for contractors upon becoming aware of violations of federal law.  The following additional requirements will be imposed on those contractors subject to the requirements of FAR 3.10, as implemented by FAR 52.203-13 and FAR 52-203-14, if the proposed rule becomes effective:

The contractor will be required to assign responsibility to a person of sufficiently high level within the organization and adequate resources to ensure effectiveness of the business ethics awareness and compliance program and internal control system.

There must be a reasonable effort to exclude principals in the organization who due diligence would have exposed as having engaged in conduct that is illegal or otherwise in conflict with the contractor’s code of business ethics and conduct.

There is to be a requirement for periodic reviews of the company’s business practices, procedures, policies, and internal controls, to include monitoring and auditing to detect criminal conduct.

There is to be a periodic assessment of the risk of criminal conduct, with appropriate steps to design, implement, or modify the business ethics awareness and compliance program and the internal control system as necessary to reduce the risk of criminal conduct identified through the process.

There is to be an internal reporting mechanism, such as a hotline, which allows for anonymity, or confidentiality, by which employees may report suspected instances of improper conduct, and instructions that encourage employees to make such reports.

The contractor is to provide disciplinary action for improper conduct or for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent or detect improper conduct.

There is to be timely reporting, in writing, to the agency Office of the Inspector General, with a copy to the Contracting Officer, whenever the contractor has reasonable grounds to be believe that a principal, employee, agent, or subcontractor has committed a violation of federal criminal law in connection with the award or performance of any government contract performed by a contractor or a subcontract thereunder.

Finally, there is to be full cooperation with any government agencies responsible for audit, investigation, or corrective actions.

It is apparent that the Proposed Rule appears to be consistent with the contractor compliance requirements in U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines Manual, which provides specific guidance on what the FAR Councils consider to be an effective ethics and compliance program.

We believe that these proposed additional requirements will be approved and will supplement the newly issued requirements of FAR 3.10. It goes without saying that government contractors should be vigilant in their adherence to all laws and regulations, but now there must also be a visible program in place to demonstrate that contractors are committed to doing everything possible to inform their employees. Our firm is available to assist contractors to assure prompt compliance.