Agencies can improve suspension and debarment process, says GAO

Too many federal agencies are insufficiently protecting against contractor fraud or incompetence by using the suspension and debarment process, the Government Accountability Office reported Thursday. Agencies with records of scant use of the practice should beef up dedicated staff and commit to greater use of the interagency committee designed for this purpose, the auditors said.

"Agencies that fail to devote sufficient attention to suspension and debarment issues likely will continue to have limited levels of activity and risk fostering a perception that they are not serious about holding the entities they deal with accountable," William Woods, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, told a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform. But "we need to keep the process informal to avoid red tape, because agencies need to move quickly to protect the government's interest," he added.

GAO examined the number of suspensions and debarments imposed under the Federal Acquisition Regulation of 10 major contracting agencies over five fiscal years. Most active were the Defense Logistics Agency, the Navy, the General Services Administration and Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Agencies with little or no use of the procedure were the Commerce, Health and Human Services, Justice, State and Treasury departments, as well as DHS' Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"The mountains of federal forms are frustrating" for many good contractors, said panel chairman Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., "but certain contractors try to defraud, or are chronically poor performers. We need to find out why some agencies uncover the abuse and others don't" so the government can enforce a process that "strengthens the integrity of overall contract system."

The Defense Department has far and away the highest raw number of suspensions and debarments (1,616 over five years), but when viewed as a percentage of contracting dollars, as ranking member Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. noted, the Environmental Protection Agency has a far higher rate.

HHS, Connolly and Republican members pointed out, did not post a single contractor suspension or debarment in the past five years, despite a 2010 budget that included $368 billion in grants and $19 billion in contracts.

GAO's Woods said he was surprised by the numbers at HHS. His report does not recommend any new legislation on suspensions (which are temporary) and debarments (which are long term), but calls for the agencies deemed inactive to mimic the organizational approaches of the active ones. That means assigning full-time dedicated staff and resources, developing detailed implementation guidance, and promoting a case referral process.

In addition, GAO recommends that the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy issue governmentwide guidance to ensure that agencies are aware of the elements of an active suspension and debarment program and the importance of cooperating with the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee. Witnesses at the hearing suggested that many agencies lack full commitment to that panel, which was created in 1986.

Under the Federal Acquisition Regulation and a parallel set of rules for nonprocurement contracting, agencies are responsible for examining contractors and uncovering fraud or nonperformance and then posting the companies on the website of the Excluded Parties List System maintained by the General Services Administration. Contractors' rights are supposed to be protected through established procedures for challenging the listing through a timely meeting with top agency officials and a "mini trial" in which they can present evidence defending their record.

Nearly 84 percent of suspensions and debarments are required by statute -- such as past violators of the 1970 Clean Air or 1972 Clean Water acts -- according to GAO, which focused its study on the 16 percent that are discretionary.

The agencies deemed inactive generally accepted GAO's conclusions. Nick Nyack, chief procurement official at Homeland Security Department, said, "We get this. We're going to get it right and will be a best practices agency in short order." Under questioning, he said it could be done within three months.

Three months was also the estimate for making changes the members elicited from Nancy Gunderson, suspension and debarment official at HHS. She said the department had terminated numerous grants and contracts for reasons such as questionable scientific integrity. But HHS efforts thus far on the issue have focused on promoting an electronic desk reference, staff training and looking at other agencies' procedures, she said.

Agencies considered models were represented by Richard Pelletier, a suspension and department official at EPA, who said his agency since 1981 has maintained a "robust" approach that involves two offices with full-time staff.

Steven Shaw, deputy general counsel of the Air Force, stressed the importance protecting contractors' rights by having officials who aren't in the procurement chain "examine evidence, not just the fact of an indictment." He favors a carrot-and-stick approach that includes regular meetings with important contractors and not mandatory debarments. The overall dollar figures, rather than the number of suspensions or debarments, he added, might be a better metric on agency activity than raw numbers.

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