NIH ousts De Vera from contract helm

The National Institutes of Health has reorganized the management of three high-profile information technology acquisition programs replacing Manny De Vera as director of the office that runs the governmentwide contracts.

Leamon Lee associate director for administration at NIH said he will lead the organization's Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC) instead of De Vera. De Vera has been designated one of several program managers reporting to Sydney Jones director of the NIH Procurement Office but De Vera confirmed Friday that he is looking for another job.

Lee also has added 20 people to the NITAAC staff to cope with the popularity of the Electronic Computer Store ImageWorld and the Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners (CIO-SP) program and said he would add additional people as needed. Gale Greenwald who was the lead contracting officer for ImageWorld and CIO-SP said she was to head the CIO-SP contracting team but she also is looking for a new position."Manny and Gale are very vital employees on my team " Lee said adding that he did not know what had prompted them to seek new jobs.

Asked if he knew whether De Vera and Greenwald were unhappy with the new management plan Lee said "I have a very large organization and not all of my employees are going to be happy."

De Vera and Greenwald said they plan to stay at NIH until new members of NITAAC are brought up to speed on the contracts.

Until late October only five people worked for NITAAC which processed $140 million in orders during the last few weeks of fiscal 1996. "Any time you have a new program an innovative or creative approach to doing something you normally put a small cadre of people on it to bring it up " Lee said. "Once you do that it's necessary to staff that project appropriately [and] that's what I have done."

The Word Spreads

As word of the reorganization leaked out some vendors and government officials said the changes at NIH are anything but routine. De Vera's aggressive use of nontraditional contracting practices has put NIH at the forefront of procurement reform and many in the federal contracting community believe the success or failure of programs there could dictate the ultimate fate of acquisition innovation.

Some have speculated though they will not do so publicly that De Vera and Greenwald are victims of a struggle between reformers and more conservative procurement officials who want to restrain them. Others suggest that Lee is rescuing a program in trouble and that NIH has inadequate contract administration for making certain that the federal government receives what it orders.

Government and industry sources have said privately that an unusual radio advertising campaign De Vera purchased in September which included commercials during shock jock Howard Stern's show embarrassed some officials. De Vera's creative buying practices meanwhile helped draw business away from contracts at other agencies which reportedly displeased officials outside NIH.

Such rumblings are dismissed by Lee who said he still considers De Vera and Greenwald "very important employees and team members on this program that I've structured here " adding "Manny is not being forced out."

Others contend that while there has been turmoil within NIH about who would run the programs the conflict stems primarily from the usual growing pains a program experiences as it expands.

"Typically what happens when a contract award is made and it's the magnitude [of] this contract is there are...people trying to get involved " said Joe Fillipone vice president of sales and marketing with ImageWorld vendor Compusearch Inc. "It always creates some turmoil and you have to work through it."

Paul Brubaker an aide to Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) who co-sponsored recent procurement reform legislation said he is afraid the negative reaction to the changes so far may be "blown out of proportion" and "could hurt agencies who are coming out and doing innovative and exciting things.

"We don't want to see someone get pinched because they're innovative - and I'm not saying that's what happened here - but on the other hand you have to let top agency officials run a contract " Brubaker commented.

Cause for Concern

Vendors who are close to De Vera and Greenwald and question the need for the changes seem worried primarily that new managers might not be as aggressive in using new procurement techniques. "I think what's concerning people is that the vision and the ideas that founded [the programs] may not be around to carry them off " said one vendor who asked not to be named. "These are the rules we're operating under now but what's it going to be next week?"

Lee said he plans to brief vendors about the new management structure soon but that the way the contracts operate will not change. "I think the customers need to understand that I have staffed it with a very qualified group of individuals and they will be well served " he said.

Some of the concern about the personnel changes apparently has been fueled by a congressional inquiry into how well NIH is managing the contracts. In late September staff members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee asked NIH officials to report on how they were operating the programs and questioned whether the agency had assigned enough people to NITAAC.

Word of the reorganization began to circulate soon after though Lee said he had not produced his plan under pressure from Capitol Hill.

Brubaker - who as deputy staff director with the Governmental Affairs panel's Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee was among those who met with NIH - said the query was routine. He said the panel is interviewing agencies to gauge how they responded to the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 which revamped information technology acquisition and management. "I just want to make sure they are assigning appropriate resources " Brubaker said adding that he was satisfied with what he was told by Lee.

- Allan Holmes contributed to this report.

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