Watchdog group urges Congress to attack contractor misconduct

By Jenny Mandel

January 5, 2007

A government watchdog group published a task list for the new Congress on Friday that included addressing federal contractor misconduct and the "revolving door" between employment in government and industry.

The 13 priorities outlined by the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, focused heavily on federal contracting issues. The group urged lawmakers to hold hearings on contractor suspension and debarment rules that are rarely invoked, in part due to the lengthy and expensive legal process involved.

In a statement, POGO officials promised they would soon publish findings on more than $10 billion in fines and other penalties imposed for alleged wrongdoing on 50 contractors that are among those doing the most federal business.

Highlighting a little-known issue, the advocacy officials cited a Defense Department investigation into human trafficking by federal contractors operating in Iraq. They noted that no hearings have been held to examine potential abuses of third-country nationals working on U.S.-funded projects, including the illegal confiscation of passports and violations of Iraqi immigration rules.

The watchdog group also urged members of Congress to fix the "broken" federal contracting system, citing a lack of competition, accountability and transparency, among other problems.

The advocates asked Congress to consider whether large portions of the defense- and security-related budgets should continue to be classified, arguing that secrecy hinders oversight. They said lawmakers should take a tough stand in demanding financial accountability from the Pentagon.

Defense has never had a full audit, unlike other major agencies, because the department's financial systems are so disorderly that they cannot be properly evaluated. POGO cited a statement by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that Defense's goal for a full review has been pushed back to 2016 from 2007.

The group's list also included issues related to general transparency and accountability. POGO urged lawmakers to review the need for a proliferation of secrecy designations on government documents, saying a recent count by officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found more than 100. That amounts to nearly double the number of designations open government groups were aware of, POGO said.

The group also urged closer examination of conflicts of interest in scientific research, noting issues at the National Institutes of Health with researchers also serving as industry consultants. And the watchdogs urged lawmakers to look more closely at divided interests arising from the flow of employees between the federal government and industry contractors.

Despite the 110th Congress's much-touted focus on oversight, one POGO suggestion could prove unpopular with lawmakers.

The group urged legislators to weigh Defense spending priorities that they said sometimes favor contractors who build major weapons systems, some of them unproven or obsolete, over the immediate needs of troops.

But Congress could have a hard time cutting out some of the prized earmarks that deliver manufacturing jobs and dollars directly to individual lawmakers' districts.

By Jenny Mandel

January 5, 2007