DARPA ethics probe concludes

A watchdog group had accused DOD's high-tech research arm of allowing too much coziness between employees and contractors.

DARPA logo

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been cleared of allegations of ethical wrongdoing by the Defense Department Inspector General.

In 2011, the Project on Government Oversight called on the DOD IG to investigate conflicts of interest at DARPA between employees and contractors to which they had ties. In particular, and the case that triggered POGO’s request, was the link between former DARPA Director Regina Dugan and a firm run by her family, RedXDefense, a DARPA contractor. Also under scrutiny was a "revolving door" between DARPA and contracted defense firm BAE Systems.

In the report, Jacquelyn Wicecarver, assistant inspector general for acquisition and contract management, wrote that the IG office’s probe found no proof of wrongdoing and that DARPA’s measures for ensuring ethics at the agency meet governmentwide standards and are adequate. There is no mention in the report of Dugan or the RedXDefense.

Read the Report

To download the DOD IG report, click here.

"DARPA’s ethics policies and program implementation were consistent with federal government conflict-of-interest mitigation standards, and DARPA personnel were properly trained and followed their policies," Wicecarver wrote.

The IG sampled 40 of the agency’s roughly 200 employees, chosen at random. Of those sampled, there were a total of 53 reports of potential conflicts on file. However, the IG found that the mitigation measures the employees followed, such as recusing themselves from participation in a particular program or activity, were sufficient to avoid any actual conflicts.

"In 40 sampled cases, DARPA officials undertook a mitigation process that usually included either a voluntary divestiture process or the employee self-disqualifying from personally and substantially participating in actions dealing with the organization or person where an actual conflict-of-interest existed," the report noted.

But those measures do not go far enough, according to Scott Amey, general counsel at POGO.

"The agency has ethics training and standards, but even that is concerning because with 40 DARPA employees there were 53 instances where ethics concerns had to be mitigated. That seems like high number at small agency," Amey said. "Thirty of the 53 cases were recusals—again, that’s not really getting to the heart of an independent agency. In a lot of other agencies, if employees have a financial conflict or ties to contractor, at that point they would take more than steps of recusals to prevent access or sharing of information."

Also addressed in the IG report were allegations of potential conflicts of interest between DARPA and BAE and its subsidiary, AlphaTech, including concerns about BAE and AlphaTech employees rotating employment between the private companies and DARPA. POGO also alleged that BAE/AlphaTech was awarded a disproportionate number of contracts between 2002 and 2010.

"We determined that the program management and contract award process participation of the seven DARPA employees who formerly worked for BAE/AlphaTech did not create a conflict-of-interest between the two entities," Wicecarver wrote, adding that one of the individuals was a consultant, not a DARPA employee, and that all in question adequately underwent ethics training and followed the rules accordingly.

The review also at least partly attributes the revolving door to the nature of the agency’s work.

"DARPA personnel routinely rotate between the private and public sectors. DARPA recruits and hires individuals to fill specific innovational research needs for limited time periods (generally 3 to 6 years), then the employee returns to private industry," the report stated.

Still, Amey cautioned that there are still plenty of potential dangers in DARPA’s turnover, which happens plenty in other agencies as well.

"There are always concerns about whether an agency is working in the best interest of taxpayers, or if people in the agency are working toward their own personal or private corporate interests. You have to worry about agencies being lenient on contractors, or working only with contractors with insider connections," Amey said. "The contracting system is supposed to be unbiased and beyond reproach, but then you see some of this data – 40 DARPA employees with 53 potential conflicts. It’s a small world, but at the same time DARPA has to make sure they are doing everything they can to protect taxpayer interests and not operate for personal or private gain."

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