Procurement chief's arrest leaves leadership void

Reform, hurricane relief and other issues call for guidance

The arrest last week of David Safavian, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, has left an empty space that government officials need to fill quickly, policy experts say.

Safavian resigned Sept. 16 and was arrested at his Alexandria, Va., home Sept 19 on charges of making false statements to a General Services Administration ethics officer and GSA's inspector general and obstructing a GSA investigation. The charges relate to a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland that Safavian, who was GSA's chief of staff at the time, went on with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Regardless of the resolution of Safavian's case, the procurement community needs leadership now, observers say. With procurement reforms under discussion, hurricane relief efforts that need contract guidance and other issues calling for leadership, the top OFPP spot should not remain vacant any longer than necessary, they say.

"Even though he hadn't come out of the acquisition community, he had brought some focused leadership to acquisition," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council and a former Defense Department official who led acquisition reform during the Clinton administration.

In Safavian's absence, "that void kind of comes back," Soloway said. "People were seeing him becoming a strong leader in the community. Now you're leaderless."

David Nadler, a partner at the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro Morin and Oshinsky and a Federal Computer Week columnist, said the effects of Safavian's arrest could be severe. A number of events have already chilled the procurement community, such as the misuse of an information technology contract in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and the case of Darlene Druyan, who admitted to steering lucrative contracts to Boeing while she served as the Air Force's chief acquisition officer in exchange for a job with the company, Nadler said.

"The arrest of Safavian is going to put us in the freezer," he said. "The trend that we have seen over the last year or so of the pendulum swinging back toward an era of greater oversight is only going to get worse. The cumulative effect of all of these events will have an unfair but clear impact on the credibility of the procurement workforce."

The charges against Safavian do not directly relate to his OFPP position, but that doesn't matter, Nadler said. "The guy is the chief procurement official for the government. The niceties of the allegations will be lost upon the policy-makers and the public at large. At the end of the day, you have the lead person for setting procurement policy being arrested on corruption charges. It is naturally going to be a reflection on the procurement community."

As a result, procurement officials will be unwilling to do anything that even hints at falling outside the lines of standard procedure, he said. "This is not going to be a time for creativity and innovation," Nadler said. "It's going to be a climate of people looking over their shoulders. Government officials will put greater distance between themselves and industry."

A question of permanency

Robert Burton, OFPP's associate administrator who is managing the Office of Management and Budget's procurement shop for now, has a reputation for being a knowledgeable, capable career employee.

Jonathan Aronie, a procurement attorney at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton and an FCW columnist, said Burton is top notch. "We won't take a hit to procurement policy if he's at the helm," Aronie said. "Procurement policy is bigger than any one individual. Life will go on."

However, others say Burton won't be considered the Bush administration's OFPP representative and therefore won't be able to influence political decisions.

"It's not a question of capability, it's a question of permanency," said Valerie Perlowitz, president and chief executive officer of Reliable Integration Services. "If someone is in an acting role, acting doesn't have the power to drive these policy issues."

"Rob knows his business backward and forward," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. "He has the respect of everyone in the procurement community. The only thing he doesn't have is the permanent administrator position. He's a careerist working in an organization that puts a value" on the political appointees.

Safavian had led some important initiatives, particularly advocating education for acquisition professionals, said Neal Fox, a consultant who recently left GSA as assistant commissioner of commercial acquisition.

"I hope that agenda continues under whoever takes his place," Fox said. "The acquisition profession has suffered a loss over the years. It has downsized, and when you have fewer people to do the job, those who remain must be more highly trained."

Safavian's removal also offers a chance to re-examine competitive sourcing, an initiative that the Bush administration has pushed to improve government efficiency, Fox said. "There's an opportunity to look at whether or not it's being used in a way that truly benefits the government," he said.

Attuned to industry's needs

OFPP needs a leader with some empathy for industry's needs, Perlowitz said. "One of the challenges we continue to face is that if you have academics or have people in there without strong industry ties, they may not have an understanding of what the long-term effects of political changes are," she said. "I certainly would like to see somebody who's going to play devil's advocate and say, 'Yes, these policies are to the benefit of the government, but what is the impact going to be to the businesses that provide services?'"

Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said OFPP needs a leader like Angela Styles, Safavian's predecessor. Although a polarizing figure in the procurement community, Styles focused on competition and contracting oversight, which Brian said is important.

"My dream would be if they could bring Angela back for a while, but that probably won't happen," Brian said.

Because of the relatively short time remaining in Bush's second term, no appointee is likely to successfully undertake major reforms, although potential exists for making modest improvements. However, "you can do a lot of damage" in a short time, she said.

In contrast to Perlowitz's position, Brian would like to see an appointee with no industry ties, which she believes is unlikely. "The problem is that nearly everybody who is well-qualified in this field has been working in industry," she said. "It's hard to find somebody whose loyalty is with government."

The charges against Safavian stem from the inference that he was protecting a political ally, she noted.

"What you want is somebody independent and entirely focused on having the government move in the direction of getting the best deal for the taxpayer," she said.

The performance of Michael Brown, who resigned as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after leading the federal government's sluggish and confused response to Hurricane Katrina, called attention to his lack of emergency management experience. Likewise, some have criticized Bush's choice of Safavian, who had no experience in federal procurement before joining GSA.

That criticism is not fair in Safavian's case, Soloway said. "He was chief of staff at GSA," Soloway said. "He's been around those issues. He understood the President's Management Agenda. He was very clear in his objectives. He communicated clearly. That doesn't completely make up for his lack of acquisition expertise, but it certainly made a big difference."

Styles declined to comment. So did Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and an active force in shaping procurement policy in Congress. Safavian's wife works for Davis' committee.

Safavian charged with lying to officials

David Safavian, former administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, was arrested Sept. 19 on charges of making false statements and obstructing an investigation by the General Services Administration's Office of Inspector General when Safavian was GSA's chief of staff.

Safavian accompanied lobbyist Jack Abramoff on a golfing trip to Scotland in 2002, along with Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) and other guests. Safavian paid his own expenses for the trip, but in the course of seeking permission to go on the outing, he told GSA ethics officials that Abramoff had no prior business with GSA.

However, according to the Justice Department complaint, Safavian "allegedly aided a Washington, D.C., lobbyist -- [Abramoff] -- in the lobbyist's attempts to acquire GSA-controlled property in and around Washington."

-- Michael Hardy

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