SARA Panel approves ethics recommendations

Acquisition Advisory Panel

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The Acquisition Advisory Panel finalized and approved several recommendations concerning ethics for contractors and agencies today in what is likely to be its final full-scale meeting.

The group, mandated by the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 and often called the SARA Panel, was put together in February 2005. Since then, it has met regularly to consider and refine recommendations submitted by its various working groups.

Recommendations the panel adopted today call on the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council to review existing rules and regulations on ethical behavior, with a particular focus on conflicts of interest, and create new ones if necessary.

Tom Luedtke, assistant administrator for procurement at NASA, introduced the recommendations. In their final form, they include:

  • Developing a standard clause, or a set of standard clauses, regarding organizational conflicts of interest. The standard clause or clauses would be included in solicitations and contracts.
  • Contractors should have the same annual ethics training federal workers get, so they will understand why the rules on seemingly innocuous things such as paying for meals or accepting gifts are different for the government. Contractors, however, should not be expected to abide by all of the government's rules.
  • The FAR Council should work with the Defense Acquisition University and the Federal Acquisition Institute to develop and provide training that helps procurement employees identify conflicts of interest, including organizational and personal conflicts.
"We're not convinced, based on what we've seen and heard, that government personnel really understand their full range of options" for addressing conflicts, Luedtke said.

The panel vigorously debated a proposed recommendation designed to punish companies and individuals who "repeatedly violate the rules, or who exhibit an egregious lack of integrity." Some panel members felt it was too harsh or redundant, while others argued that the current suspension and debarment procedures are not sufficient to deal with flagrant repeat violators.

"There are some acts that are so bad they seem to call for more than a temporary ban on doing business with the government," Luedtke said. "It's not just the government who suffers. It's honest contractors."

But Roger Waldron, director of the General Services Administration's Acquisition Management Center, said the existing measures available are sufficient. "We have a whole framework that already exists," he said. "I just don't think this is necessary."

Lou Addeo, former president of government solutions at AT&T, cautioned against talk of scrapping the recommendation as the panel debated.

"If you violate something five or 10 times, what happens?" he asked. "You just wait a year or two and then go back into it. I think there's some meat here that shouldn't be missed."

The panel ultimately adopted a revised recommendation urging the government to make full use of the tools at its disposal to punish unethical companies.

The panel may meet one more time to tie up loose ends, but that has not been determined for certain. The working groups are now developing draft reports on their findings and recommendations, with a goal of finishing the drafts by Sept. 21.

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