Fee for briefing raises hackles

The first annual Federal Acquisition Regulation/Defense FAR Supplement Review last week was either a public meeting or a private informational session, depending on how you view its $105 admission fee.

Before the one-day conference, the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, wrote to the general counsels of the sponsoring agencies — the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration, NASA and the Defense Department — to say the charge was highly questionable for a public meeting.

POGO said it knows of no federal agency that charges a fee to attend such a meeting. But David Capitano, deputy director of Defense procurement and acquisition policy and a conference organizer, said the conference was always intended to be an educational session. “There was never any intention to stand up there and solicit public comment,” he said.

However, an online announcement for the conference seemed to undercut Capitano’s characterization. The announcement states that the one-day review would be “a great opportunity for you to obtain insight into, and provide feedback on,” the changes to the FAR and DFAR Supplement issued in the past year.

“As soon as you’re soliciting comments from the public, then it turns into a public meeting,” said Scott Amey, POGO’s general counsel. Charging a fee to attend a public meeting violates open-meeting laws and good-government rules, he added.

Capitano said the fee covered the cost of registration and badges, printing the materials and renting the hotel space. “It just covered our costs. In fact, we came out very close to even.”

Federal officials provided their insight at the conference, while attendees were told to go to a Web site to record their comments, Capitano said. “In other words, the conference didn’t say you can’t give us feedback. It’s that the feedback has to come through the Web site,” he said.

If participants interpreted the promotional announcement to mean they could query and comment on proposed rules at the conference, “then, yes, it was not as well-written as it could have been,” Capitano said. “We apologize. That was not what we were looking to do. We were not looking to solicit public input.”

Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council, wasn’t bothered by the fee or the description of the conference, he said, because it costs money to put on meetings at hotels and convention centers.

Chvotkin said he saw no change in the agenda or breakout sessions after organizers labeled it as an informational meeting.

“Whether it was in response to the POGO letter or it was their plan all along and they just re-emphasized it because of the letter, or they didn’t care about the letter, I don’t know their motivation.”

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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