Accountability bill stirs debate anew

A proposed law would make it easier for agencies to identify companies with ethical or performance black marks on their records, and harder for suspended contractors to get back into the government's good graces.

Called the Contractor Accountability Act of 2003, the bill would establish a centralized database on actions taken against contractors. Those who have been convicted of two or more similar violations that warrant debarment would have to prove that they have reformed their practices in order to regain eligibility for contracting.

A group of House Democrats, including lead sponsor Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and presidential contender Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), introduced the bill July 17.

The lawmakers cited a database that lists contractor misconduct, maintained by the Project on Government Oversight, as a factor in inspiring the legislation. The database shows that from 1990 through 2001, the top 10 federal contractors had a total of 280 instances of alleged misconduct and paid almost $2 billion in fines and other charges.

"The federal government should not be in the business of repeatedly awarding contracts to companies that repeatedly break the rules," Maloney said. "This is a good government accountability bill. We spend billions on goods and services annually, and we don't keep track of who's doing a good job."

The legislation would require the General Services Administration to maintain the database, which would contain information regarding any criminal or civil proceedings against contractors, contracts terminated for default and any suspensions or debarments in the past five years.

Supporters of the bill say it would give agencies, oversight bodies and watchdogs access to needed information in a convenient format. When the government oversight group recently updated its database, it had to pull information from publications, Justice Department press releases, company press releases, court dockets, Securities and Exchange Commission reports, inspector general reports and other sources, said Eric Miller, senior defense investigator with the project.

"It took us over a year to do the first report," which came out in May 2002, he said. "We've been updating it over the past year. It's not everything, but we get as much as we can."

Maloney, drawing on her experience as a former member of the New York City Council, said a lack of information makes contractor fraud easier. For example, the council awarded contracts for work that was never completed and, at least once, to a company that didn't exist, she said.

Industry groups, however, say the law is not needed.

"It's to be expected," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. "At the base of the legislation is the idea that the government doesn't have a system that works well, and in fact, it does have a system that works well and has for many years."

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who chairs the House Government Reform Committee, of which Maloney is a member, sees the proposal as unnecessary, said David Marin, Davis' communications and policy director. He said Maloney's bill is a less severe version of contractor responsibility rules proposed under the Clinton administration. These rules were scornfully called "blacklisting" rules by opponents and would have led to companies' debarment.

Although the Information Technology Association of America has not taken a formal position on the proposal, executive vice president Olga Grkavac said the law is probably not needed. "We feel there are laws that are already in place to deal with contractor activity," she said.

Many vendors declined to comment. "It's 'Blacklisting II' all over again," said one industry official on condition of anonymity.

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