As I mentioned in a recent post, the Department of Defense (DoD) is using its “other transaction” authority with increased frequency to attract non-traditional defense contractors and to capitalize on the cutting-edge technological advancements found in the commercial marketplace. Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs) are not procurement contracts, grants, or cooperative agreements and, as such, many procurement laws and regulations do not apply, including the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA) and the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). Continue Reading Bid Protests: Are Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs) Really Bulletproof?
Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s 12th Annual Intelligence Community Legal Conference to discuss acquisition reform with some of the top government attorneys in the intelligence community. Much to my surprise, the majority of the conversation focused on bid protests and the impact that protests have on federal procurements. During my time as a government attorney defending against bid protests, I gained valuable insight into how the government works to defeat them and what contractors can to do improve their chance of success. Some of these lessons are shared below. Continue Reading Bid Protests: An Insider’s Perspective
The Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2014 required the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) to establish an electronic docketing system for bid protests. Now, four years later, there are indications that the GAO might be moving to the Electronic Protest Docketing System (“EPDS”) sometime this year. Before going live with EPDS, the GAO is implementing a pilot program in which certain protests already filed at the GAO will be moved into EPDS. The pilot program will ensure that EPDS is fully operational before it goes live and becomes the sole means for filing a bid protest at the GAO. Continue Reading The GAO’s Electronic Docket May Be Going Live Soon!
Last month, we reported that the Government Accountability Office’s (“GAO”) statutory authority to hear bid protests on civilian task orders exceeding $10 million had expired, leading to a parade of dismissed protests and disappointed contractors left without legal recourse. As of last week, there is reason to be hopeful, as the House of Representatives and Senate agreed on legislation that promises to permanently restore the GAO’s authority to hear civilian bid protests. Continue Reading Proposed 2017 NDAA is a Mixed Bag for Government Contractors
In a recent decision, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) disappointingly, if unsurprisingly, confirmed that it no longer has jurisdiction to hear protests against a task order issued by a civilian agency. Continue Reading Sun Sets on Civilian Task Order Protests
The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) issues statistics each year regarding the outcome of bid protests. In 2015, there were 2,639 cases filed and there we 587 decisions on the merits. Of those, only 68 protests were sustained. According to the way the GAO presents its statistics, that would indicate that protestors prevailed approximately 12% of the time. In reality, since many protests were withdrawn or summarily dismissed, the protesters only prevailed in 68 of the 2,639 protests filed and the true success rate was closer to 3%. With those odds, why would anyone file a GAO bid protest? The answer requires a little closer scrutiny since statistics can be misleading.
On September 11, 2013, the American Legion filed an amicus curiae brief, asking the Federal Circuit to reverse the Court of Federal Claims’ November decision in Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. The United States. In Kingdomware, the COFC effectively overturned an important line of Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) decisions affecting VOSBs and SDVOSBs. Those GAO cases (commonly referred to as the Aldevra cases) addressed a critically important aspect of the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006, 8 U.S.C. §§ 8127-28 (“the Act”).
That Act established “the rule of two.” It required that “a contracting officer of [the VA] shall award contracts on the basis of competition restricted to small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans if the contracting officer has a reasonable expectation that two or more small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans will submit offers and that the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.” 38 U.S.C. § 8127(d).
On multiple occasions, contractors Kingdomware Technologies and Aldevra brought protests before the GAO, wherein they cited the language above and argued that the VA failed to follow the requisite “rule of two.” Specifically, the contractors averred that the agency failed to perform market research to determine whether two or more VOSB/SDVOSB concerns could satisfy the requirements of numerous solicitations and/or failed to set contracts aside for such concerns when market studies indicated that two or more such companies existed. Instead, in multiple instances, the VA opted to simply select contractors from the Federal Supply Schedule (FSS). The contractors argued that doing so was a violation of the Act.
The VA looked at it differently. It argued that the Act did not require it to consider setting aside procurements for SDVOSBs or VOSBs when the FSS could be used. The VA felt that it had the discretion to meet its requirements through the FSS, regardless of any obligations imposed by the Act.
In the Aldevra line of cases, the GAO agreed with the contractors’ interpretation of the Act. However, in a surprising move, the VA refused to follow the GAO’s recommendation. In an effort to break the gridlock, Kingdomware opted to press its position in the Court of Federal Claims. Unfortunately, the COFC agreed with the VA’s interpretation and effectively rejected the GAO’s support of “Veterans First.”
The COFC concluded that “the 2006 Act must be construed in light of its goal-setting provisions and thus the statute is at best ambiguous as to whether it mandates a preference for SDVOSBs and VOSBs for all VA procurements.” Although the Act uses the phrase “shall award” in one place, the Court reasoned that this phrase “must be read in connection with the other terms in the 2006 Act.” The Court found that those other terms demonstrated that the Act was “goal-setting in nature.” As such, it did not require the VA to consider setting aside procurements for SDVOSBs or VOSBs. Based on this reading of the Act, the COFC held that the VA had broad discretion with regard to set-aside procurements and, therefore, that the agency was not required to consider setting aside the procurement at issue. Kingdomware appealed to the Federal Circuit, which is where the matter presently sits.
In filing its amicus brief, the American Legion has joined the fight against the VA. In the brief, the American Legion argues that the Act was specifically passed to increase the number of contracts set-aside for VOSBs and SDVOSBs. As such, Congress’ use of the word “shall” was entirely deliberate. The selected language was intended to force the VA to follow the “rule of two.” The American Legion’s brief cites to an earlier Federal Circuit decision, which stated that: “the word ‘shall’ is not ambiguous. . . ‘shall is mandatory language,’ and ‘nothing in the language of the statute states or suggests that the word shall does not mean exactly what it says.’ ” The amicus brief goes on to state that “[b]y awarding contracts to nonveteran businesses…the VA diverts up to nearly $3 billion per year in government contracts away from veteran-owned small businesses.” The American Legion argues that this result is unacceptable and calls on the Federal Circuit to reverse the COFC ruling.
It is difficult to argue with the American Legion’s position. By using the word “shall” in the Act, Congress made its intent clear. The Act was designed to place veterans and service-disabled veterans ahead of all others for contracting purposes. There is nothing ambiguous about that proposition and the statutory language supports such a conclusion. The fact that the VA refuses to make awards to those it is designed to serve, despite the clear intent of the Act, is mind-boggling. Let’s hope the Federal Circuit agrees.
Suspension and debarment procedures have been a hot topic in recent years, and it appears that the issue will remain a focus of congressional debate for the rest of this year as well. On June 12, 2013, Congress heard testimony on the state of the federal government’s suspension and debarment (S&D) system. The testimony was meant to serve as a congressional follow up to two troublesome GAO reports, which emphasized the many problems with the current S&D system.
John Neumann, the GAO’s Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, offered testimony at this June 12th hearing. He spoke about the GAO’s recent efforts to alleviate the systematic issues identified in the GAO reports. Neumann’s testimony indicated that he believed the suspension and debarment system was, in fact, improving, and that no major changes to the system were necessary. However, his opinion is far from universal. Most people agree that the S&D system is inescapably flawed, and in need of a dramatic overhaul.
For example, Scott Amey, General Counsel for the Project On Government Oversight (a group that works “to achieve a more accountable federal government”), testified that many agencies “still are not utilizing the suspension or debarment tool” effectively. Amey went on to testify that “history proves” that the current system does not force agencies to employ “top-notch contractors that are not involved in illegal or questionable activities.” In other words, most agencies continue to look the other way, giving business to contractors the agencies know are involved in misconduct, rather than initiating suspension and debarment procedures. Amey cited the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Social Security Administration as agencies that have “zero suspensions, proposed debarments, debarments, and administrative agreements.” He further identified the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Labor as having only a handful of suspensions and debarments. In short, Amey indicated that he does not believe that the current system encourages agencies to diligently prosecute and punish “bad” contractors.
Amey did, however, suggest a possible solution to this systematic underuse, or misuse, of suspension and debarment procedures: the Stop Unworthy Spending (or “SUSPEND”) Act. The SUSPEND Act, which was introduced by House of Representatives oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa several months ago could dramatically overhaul the S&D procedures applicable to federal contractors. Currently, suspension and debarment of contractors is handled by each individual contracting agency, by its respective suspension and debarments office. But under Issa’s SUSPEND Act, these forty-one individual offices would be consolidated into the “Board of Civilian Suspension and Debarment,” which would be overseen by the General Services Administration. In addition to consolidating the forty-one civilian agency S&D offices into one centralized board, the Act would standardize agencies’ S&D policies, and increase transparency.
Proponents of the SUSPEND Act point out that it will result in consistent, uniform application of S&D procedures across various agencies, and thereby put a stop to the underutilization of the S&D process by individual agencies. It will also prevent these agencies from making mistakes with respect to reporting requirements. In Issa’s view, the SUSPEND Act is necessary to combat the award of government contracts to those he described as “fraudsters, criminals, or tax cheats.” However, opponents say that the proposed changes could be detrimental to both contractors and agencies.
Critics point out that a centralized Board of Civilian Suspension and Debarment could result in a bureaucratic behemoth, which would ultimately prove slower for contractors, and result in a more formal process that requires participation of legal counsel. Moreover, the restructuring could deprive agencies of their leverage in negotiating concessions from contractors during debarment negotiations. It might also lead to duplication and inefficiency as the agencies try to coordinate their suspension and debarment activities with a new government entity.
Pro or con, the SUSPEND Act has the potential to become very important in upcoming months, and we will keep you updated on the progress of the bill. Whether or not the bill ultimately passes, it is important to also keep in mind what it signifies. This bill, and the congressional attention paid to the S&D program in general, demonstrate the government’s increased vigilance with respect to contractor fraud. The government’s focus remains on increasing the prosecution of dishonest or fraudulent contractors, and on perfecting S&D procedures used to punish those contractors. As this process continues, it is important for contractors to be aware of the dangers, and consult with legal counsel to avoid any inadvertent infractions.
Michael H. Payne is the Chairman of the firm’s Federal Practice Group and, together with other experienced members of the group, frequently advises contractors on federal contracting matters including bid protests, claims and appeals, procurement issues, small business issues, and dispute resolution. Maria L. Panichelli is an Associate in the firm’s Federal Practice Group.
By: Edward T. DeLisle
As part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 (the 2008 Act), Congress provided the General Accounting Office (GAO) with the authority to hear protests involving certain task and delivery order contracts emanating from both defense and civilian agencies. At the time, this authority was limited to a period of three years, meaning that it was set to expire later this year. A few months ago, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 (the 2011 Act). As part of that Act, Congress partially extended the GAO’s authority. It permitted the GAO to continue hearing task and delivery order protests for contracts in excess of $10 million, but only for those contracts issued by Department of Defense agencies. For a reason not readily apparent, Congress failed to extend the GAO’s authority over civilian agencies. A bill has emerged in the Senate to address this omission.
As reported by Law360, Senate Bill 498, entitled the “Independent Task and Delivery Order Review Extension Act of 2011,” was recently introduced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. If passed, it would extend the GAO’s jurisdiction over task and delivery order protests relating to civilian agencies for an additional five and a half years, equaling the extension provided on DOD protests under the 2011 Act. This is an important development for government contractors. Many questions arose following passage of the 2011 Act. Why would Congress only extend the GAO’s authority over task and delivery orders on DOD work? It is possible that this was simply an oversight, though no one is quite sure. The legislative history is devoid of any discussion on the issue. Whatever the reason, if passed, S. 498 would maintain the status quo for five more years. We will continue to track this bill and report on its progress.
Edward T. DeLisle is a Partner in the firm and a member of the Federal Contracting Practice Group.
By: Edward T. DeLisle
For those who regularly read our blog, you know that we have followed the government’s recent concern about fraud and abuse in the federal procurement process. The GAO has issued reports that recite such abuse relative to the 8(a), HUBZone and SDVOSB programs. As those reports indicate, companies have been awarded set-aside contracts through those programs, but were not qualified to receive them. In certain circumstances, the apparent fraud was so blatant that the hubris, which certainly existed to think such abuses would go unnoticed, puts Charlie Sheen to shame. Yet, as the GAO reports state, even when the abuses were uncovered, many of these contractors continued to receive government awards. It appears that some contractors performing work overseas in places like Iraq and Afghanistan may also be receiving awards that they do not deserve.
As reported by Govexec.com, government agencies responsible for overseas contracts are not properly recording past performance history in the CPAR and PPIR electronic databases. The biggest offenders appear to be the State Department, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Based upon information supplied to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, congressionally mandated to investigate overseas contracting activities, these agencies have failed to properly report past performance history in up to 90% of the contingency contracts they have issued. While the failure to report this information is problematic for many reasons, it certainly exposes the government to contractors who are less than ideal for important government contracts. This is especially an issue as it relates to contractors in line for suspension or debarment. As former Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays, who is the chairman of the Commission, stated: “[I]f suspensions and debarments are impeded by bureaucratic decisions or inertia, then companies that have committed fraud may continue receiving taxpayer funds. In either case, untrustworthy contractors can continue profiting from government work, responsible businesses may be denied opportunities, and costs to taxpayers can climb.”
Over the years, the government has increasingly relied upon “best value” procurement to let contracts. Past performance is almost always an important factor in determining “best value.” In fact, in most cases, it is the most important factor. If federal agencies intend to continue issuing contracts in this fashion, a practice that is highly questionable for the purchase of certain services, such as construction, then they must make it a point to create a system that allows those deserving of awards to receive them. In the case of small business set aside contracts, the government has started to slowly move in this direction. The VA, for example, is now vetting those contractors on its on-line SDVOSB registry to verify eligibility. If this function is performed correctly, it will greatly enhance the probability that contracts will be let to those who deserve them. With respect to past performance history, there is a system in place. Federal agencies simply need to use it. Hopefully, the findings exposed by the Commission on Wartime Contracting make this a reality.
Edward T. DeLisle is a Partner in the firm and a member of the Federal Contracting Practice Group.