Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks to department employees in mid-July.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks to department employees in mid-July. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Census Bureau Takes Hits from Lawsuits, GAO Review and Cancelled Contract

Government Publishing Office spent $5.5 million on a printing company for 2020 decennial forms that went bankrupt.

Just 21 months before the next decennial count, the Census Bureau—under acting leadership—faces challenges in the courts, from auditors and from a mishandled printing contract for key forms.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross continues to confront legal challenges to the reasoning behind the decision to go against agency researchers’ advice and add a politically sensitive citizenship question to the 2020 questionnaire.

Separately, the Government Accountability Office in late July criticized the bureau’s practices for maintaining schedules for receiving resources on time. Though crediting program managers for progress in integrating schedules into one master copy since previous GAO reviews, auditors found that as of May 2018, officials had still not identified all resources needed as they had hoped to have done by 2014.

“Weaknesses remain” going back nearly a decade, GAO wrote to lawmakers after a review of three projects. “None of the selected schedules contain information on resource needs and availability,” the report said. “GAO has reported that such information assists program offices in forecasting the likelihood that activities will be completed as scheduled. It can also help management compute total labor and equipment hours, calculate total project and per-period cost, resolve resource conflicts, and establish the reasonableness of the plan.”

Census managers agreed with GAO’s previously expressed recommendations.

Finally, Census officials on Friday released a statement acknowledging news reports that the government—acting through the Government Publishing Office and the Justice Department—had terminated a $61 million printing contract for the 2020 census forms and was rebidding the project.

As reported first by the trade publication PrintingImpressions and then by National Public Radio, GPO was found by its inspector general to have ill-advisedly awarded the contract for paper questionnaires and letters in October 2017 to the Stamford, Conn.-based Cenveo company, which soon after went bankrupt.

GPO’s then-Inspector General Michael Raponi wrote a March 28 memo to the GPO’s general counsel saying, “Our investigation revealed GPO did not do an adequate job of protecting the interests of the government.” He cited a "high degree of disregard for GPO practices and procedures” in allowing the company an abnormally low bid and failing to thoroughly vet the company’s finances.

The Justice Department last week arranged in a New York bankruptcy court for the contract’s termination at a cost to the government of $5.5 million. (Raponi was recently succeeded by Melinda Miguel.)

Asked for comment, GPO chief public relations officer Gary Somerset told Government Executive, “Given the importance of the production of the U.S. Census, GPO is working with the Census Bureau on an expedited timeline for the release of a solicitation. Cenveo completed all of the work with which it had been tasked for the 2018 End-to-End Census Test in Providence County, R.I., prior to the execution of the agreement terminating its contract, and it will be paid for all completed work properly invoiced and accepted by GPO.” 

Somerset added: “GPO management has taken steps to improve the procurement process and is committed to doing our part to ensure a successful production of the 2020 Census.”

The bureau itself on Friday issued a statement saying after the bankruptcy petition was filed, “Cenveo and the United States engaged in discussions regarding Cenveo’s restructuring process, including its projected liquidity and any impact it would have with respect to the 2020 Printing and Mailing Contract. The United States concluded that because of the constitutional mandate to conduct the 2020 Census, it was in the public’s interest to terminate Cenveo’s contract. After several rounds of good faith, aggressive, arm’s length negotiations, the parties reached agreement to settle the matter for $5.5 million.”

The company, which did not respond to Government Executive queries, “remains obligated to destroy or sanitize all Title 13 data at no additional cost,” Census said. “Cenveo will receive separate payment for the work already performed and accepted but not invoiced on the 2018 Census Test. The complete terms of the settlement have been entered by order of the Court [and] are publicly available.” GPO, it continued, “will issue a new solicitation and intends to award the replacement printing and mailing contract in November, which will ensure there is no negative effect on the 2020 Printing and Mailing Operation or the overall 2020 Census.”