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Agencies Get Tougher on Misbehaving Contractors

Changes in staffing, resources and case referral processes have resulted in more suspensions and debarments.

Federal agencies are strengthening programs to find and punish unethical contractors, and the efforts may have paid off in increased suspension and debarment activity, according to a new watchdog report.

Governmentwide suspensions and debarments have increased from 1,836 in fiscal 2009 to 4,812 in fiscal 2013, the Government Accountability Office reported (GAO-14-513). And at six agencies that had minimal suspension and debarment activity but made changes to staffing, guidance and the case referral process as recommended by GAO in 2011, the increase was even more dramatic. These agencies went from a total of 19 suspension and debarment actions in fiscal 2009 to a collective 271 actions in fiscal 2013.

The six agencies GAO studied -- the Commerce, Health and Human Services, Justice, State and Treasury departments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- all saw a big jump in their suspension and debarment activity in fiscal 2011, the year they began to address GAO’s recommendations for successful programs. The Justice Department, for instance, went from five actions in fiscal 2010 to 50 in fiscal 2011. Though all six agencies made improvements in the same three general areas GAO pinpointed -- “a suspension and debarment program with dedicated staff, detailed policies and procedures, and practices that encourage an active referral process” -- they emphasized different reasons for their increased activity level, the report said. 

Justice Department officials told GAO that a January 2012 attorney general memorandum reminding litigating authorities and the FBI to watch for potential cases and coordinate with suspension and debarment offices led to more referrals. The Commerce, State and Treasury departments noted improvements in training and better coordination between the inspector general and suspension and debarment officials. FEMA attributed its increases to a centralized suspension and debarment office, a directive setting common standards, increased staffing and training. HHS said its IG office has provided more resources for training investigators and auditors on making referrals.

The Office of Management and Budget released governmentwide suspension and debarment guidance in November 2011, GAO said, and all 24 agencies that report to the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee have complied with the directives to name an official responsible for suspension and debarment, address resources and policies, and strengthen procedures for forwarding potential cases of misconduct to the appropriate officials.

GAO did not make any recommendations, and cautioned that Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee “officials do not consider the overall number of suspensions and debarments as the only measure of success, and emphasized that increased suspension and debarment activity has been coupled with agencies’ increased capability to use suspension and debarment appropriately and adhere to the principles of fairness and due process as laid out in the governing regulations.” OMB told GAO that it was pleased with agencies’ progress.  

(Image via Brian A Jackson/