Hill questions NASA online souvenir shop

The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics last week asked the NASA Office of the Inspector General to determine if the agency has violated federal procurement rules and internal agency Internet policy by operating an online souvenir shop.

In a Dec. 16 letter to NASA's Office of the Inspector General, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) requested that the IG review an online "trading post" operated out of Johnson Space Center that sells souvenirs, such as coffee mugs and T-shirts with the NASA logo. The NASA Exchange-JSC Trading Post 3 World Wide Web site, according to the letter, violates internal NASA policy by using government resources, such as NASA employees and technology, to benefit a commercial organization.

The trading post is described on its site as a joint project between Johnson Space Center and Forrester-Smith Inc., a Florida-based catalog fulfillment firm. The letter charges that the Web site openly promotes online sales by a single vendor to the exclusion of any other by linking to the company's site via some of NASA's popular sites.

"The impression gained by any visitor to this Web site is most certainly that this online souvenir store holds some sort of

official or endorsed status within NASA as a result of the prominent advertising on NASA's most popular Web sites, its presence on NASA Web servers using NASA's logo and its overt operations by NASA personnel," according to the letter.

Rohrabacher requested that the IG review how the decision was made to link to the commercial venture via various Web sites and how the information contained in NASA Web server logs is used. The letter also requests a review of the financial arrangements of the joint project, and it urges the IG to encourage NASA to provide links to other vendors that may be interested in selling NASA souvenirs.

David Cushing, NASA's assistant IG, said the IG's office will look into the matter, but he declined to provide any details.

The letter also contends that a recent procurement request for a firm to provide Internet services to Johnson Space Center may have been crafted to ensure that the trading post continue uninterrupted.

The solicitation was released on Dec. 4, bids were due Dec. 16, and an award was expected Dec. 18. In addition to the short turnaround time on the solicitation, the letter questions a statement in the solicitation that says NASA officials will decide if bidders can place corporate logos on the Web site if they are "tasteful."

"The traditional methods of enticing corporations to NASA with subsidies, either monetary or in-kind services, and then picking the winners must come to an end," Rohrabacher said.

Carl Peckinpaugh, a member of the government contracts section of the law firm Winston & Strawn, Washington, D.C., said government agencies and employees are prohibited from showing favoritism directed toward specific companies or products. However, agencies are allowed to link to commercial Web sites with which they have a contractual relationship, and agencies are allowed to sell products, he said.

While he described the turnaround time of the new Web maintenance contract as unusually short, Peckinpaugh said he found nothing unusual in the solicitation.

Tony Trenkle, director of the General Services Administration's electronic commerce office, said there are no specific government policies on linking to commercial Web sites other than the general rules on favoritism in procurement laws. However, GSA has been very sensitive about linking to commercial sites, he said.

"Our policy has been that we don't feel we should identify with any single commercial identity," Trenkle said. "If NASA is doing that, I would say they need to take steps to show they're not favoring the proprietary vendor."

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