The Hill

Proposal would take suspension, debarment powers from agencies

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A senior House lawmaker is considering ending individual agency programs for suspending or debarring fraudulent contractors and creating a governmentwide board to handle the work.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a discussion draft of the Stop Unworthy Spending, or SUSPEND, Act on Feb. 7. The bill would set up a Board of Civilian Suspension and Debarment to manage an accountability system and consolidate more than 41 civilian suspension and debarment offices under a single set of regulations.

Issa wants the board to actively engage with agency officials, expedite the review process and make the information publicly available.

"In the 21st century, we must have zero tolerance for fraudsters, criminals, or tax cheats receiving taxpayer money through grants or contracts," Issa said.

The bill would not end the existing Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee. Instead, the new board and committee would work together, with the board's chairman taking charge of both.

The board could become influential depending on how aggressive its members are about suspending or debarring companies. Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of TechAmerica's Global Public Sector, said if officials focus on making speedy decisions, they could hinder due process for the companies involved.

He added that regulations intend suspensions and debarments as protection for the government from possible irresponsibility, not as punishment for contractors. Furthermore, there are already legal penalties for companies that commit fraud, and Hodgkins said suspensions and debarments should not become an additional consequence.

At the same time, "bad actors make the competition field not an equitable one," he said.

He recommended giving companies a short "cure period" in which to address an agency's concerns. Often, a contractor does not know the agency is dissatisfied, and some companies first hear about their suspensions from the news media, as was the case for IBM in 2008 and GTSI in 2010.

At a time when saving money is paramount, a cure period could also save the government time and money. The company might have a quick fix for the problem, which could avoid the work of terminating an existing contract and putting the project out for bid again.

The legislation also raises questions about how the board would address a problem that is specific to one agency and whether agencies would lose the discretion to make such decisions on their own.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been talking up its efforts to invigorate suspensions and debarments.

In 2011, the Government Accountability Office studied 10 agencies' efforts to suspend or debar fraudulent contractors and found that six of them had little, if any, active programs in that regard. Administration officials told agencies to fully staff their programs and, in September 2012, touted the changes agencies had made. For instance, all of the 24 major agencies now report having a senior official in charge of the programs.

In addition, the interagency committee reported that suspensions and debarments have increased since fiscal 2009. The 24 executive agencies made 417 suspensions in fiscal 2009, 612 in fiscal 2010, and 928 in fiscal 2011, the latest year for which data is available. Agencies issued 1,501 debarments in fiscal 2009, 1,651 in fiscal 2010, and 2,398 in fiscal 2011.

"Agencies are now better equipped to protect the public from wrongdoers before critical agency resources are unnecessarily wasted," wrote Joe Jordan, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, on the OMBlog in September 2012.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Thu, Feb 14, 2013

stop contracting alltogether & give the work back to the military , let the military age limit increase with education incentives .

Mon, Feb 11, 2013

The Chairman is responsible for overseeing federal procurement. To that end, he needs to familiarize himself with the rules before he drops legislation seeking to change them. S&D, by definition, is not a punitive measure. It is a means to assure that the government is conducting business with resonsible (procurement term of art "responsible," not faithfully remembers to take out the trash "responsible") vendors. Offending vendors are excluded until a point in time when they have cured their problem and can assure the government of that cure. Moreover, S&D is permissive so that the agency involved has the ability to balance the offense, the curative action, the need for mission fulfillment. If the Chairman wants to punish vendors for cheating on taxes, etc., he should assess the sufficiency of the laws governing the offenses.

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 Gov Emp1

Would not the centalization also slow down these actions even when it is justtified? Any suspension or debarrment should be justified and follow protocol. Any rules on these actions should be enforced. And perhaps, there should be a centralized decision for a debarrment from all agencies. But taking away the individual Agency's ability to suspend doing business with a quesgtionable contracted company until/unless a national group makes a decision, seems to be overkill and more costly to the Government.

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 SPMayors Summit Point, WV

While the consolidation of S&D into a single entity is worrisome and fraught with potential problems, some of which are pointed out by Trey, the bigger issue is the transformation of S&D into a punitive tool in dealing with a variety of contract performance and management issues. Lost is the focus on whether a contractor or individual is responsible; now Congress seems to want to focus on any contract failure without consideration of existing contract remedies.

Mon, Feb 11, 2013 Scott Washington, DC

Wow. A little commonsense out of Congress for once - not letting an agency unilaterally decide to suspend a contractor. Would have been nice to have had that in place in 2010 when GTSI was railroaded and consequentially put on life support. Not many know that the full government audit revealed no wrong doing on GTSI's part. Agencies should not have the ability to take away people's livlihood without due process by an independent arbitor.

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