By: Edward T. DeLisle & Maria L. Panichelli

Be careful what you ask for, or, in the context of federal government contracting, be careful how you ask and how the government responds. If you’re not careful, you may get what you ask for, but lose a contract. That’s the lesson learned in NCI Information Systems, Inc.

In NCI Information Systems, Inc., the Department of Defense, U.S. Transportation Command (“USTRANSCOM”) issued an RFP, seeking IT administrative and management support services. The RFP incorporated FAR § 52.215-1(c)(3)(i), which states that if no time is specified in the solicitation, the deadline for receipt is 4:30 p.m., local time on the date identified.

Following the initial submittal of proposals, discussions ensued. After three rounds of discussions, the agency requested that those companies remaining in contention for award submit final proposal revisions “by close of business on 31 August 2011.” It did not specify what time constituted “close of business.” The agency’s failure to specify a time created some confusion, because USTRANSCOM employees work flextime schedules, with different hours on different days. Because of this, its office would “close” at different times on different days.

Knowing this, on August 31, at 4:21 p.m., Harris IT Services (“Harris”), one of the prospective contractors, sent an e-mail to the Contracting Officer, asking whether the government would extend “close of business” until after 4:30 PM CST. The Contracting Officer responded to Harris stating: “[u]ntil 5:00 PM Central Time is acceptable as meeting the close of business deadline.” Harris’ final proposal revisions reached the agency’s central server at 4:57 p.m. CST and arrived at the Contracting Officer’s computer at 4:59 p.m. CST on August 31. Harris was ultimately awarded the contract.

Thereafter, a protest was initiated by a competitor, NCI Information Systems, Inc., which claimed that Harris was ineligible for award because its final proposal revisions were untimely. Specifically, NCI argued that the agency set the due date for Final proposal revisions as the close of business on August 31, and that because the Contracting Officer’s notice did not provide a specific time, the time for receipt of FPRs was 4:30 p.m. pursuant to FAR § 52.215-1(c)(3)(i). The GAO agreed.

Though Harris argued that “close of business” should be interpreted as “any time prior to when the office closed for the day . . . so long as an employee remained in the office during that employee’s regularly scheduled duty hours,” the GAO declined to adopt such a rule. It reasoned that “[a]doption of such a rule would result in confusion and a lack of uniformity.” Instead, the GAO held that where an agency, such as USTRANSCOM, lacks official working hours, FAR § 52.215-1(c)(3)(i) will govern, and 4:30 p.m. local time will be considered to be the close of business. The GAO was not persuaded by Harris’ argument concerning the Contracting Officer’s extension of the time for submission, concluding that “an offeror acts unreasonably when it relies on the informal advice of a contracting officer rather than following the solicitation’s instructions.” Accordingly, the protest was sustained, and Harris was divested of its contract.

The lesson is not to rely on informal advice from a Contracting Officer, even if it is in writing. If the advice you receive was not given to all potential bidders or incorporated into a formal modification of some kind, the terms of the most recent instructions provided to all will govern, despite what the Contracting Officer told you.

Edward T. DeLisle is a Partner in the firm and a member of the Federal Contracting Practice Group. Maria L. Panichelli is an Associate in the firm’s Federal Practice Group.