Editorial: EPA/IBM case: We still have questions

Weeks after IBM was temporarily suspended from doing business with the government, there are still many outstanding questions. Some answers will come in due course. We already know more than we did two weeks ago.

We understand there are allegations that several IBM employees obtained and used source selection information to their advantage to win a financial management modernization contract with the Environmental Protection Agency. However, we still do not know most of the details behind those
allegations.

We give kudos to EPA and IBM for their wise decision to reach an agreement to stop the tremors the IBM suspension sent through the federal information technology community. Still, the events left people in government and industry somewhat jittery.

And those events raised larger and, in some ways, more disconcerting questions about the government’s suspension process. Put simply: Is this any way to run a business?

Robert Meunier, EPA’s debarring official and chairman of the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee, said the system worked. Unfortunately, we are unsure.

We do not know all the facts, but from what we have been able to learn, officials from IBM, agencies and even EPA had no knowledge of the suspension until it was posted on a General Services Administration Web site that lists suspensions. Apparently some of that secrecy was at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which is investigating the contracting case, and EPA officials who felt there was a need to protect the government.

However, the secrecy didn’t serve anybody well. The Federal Acquisition Regulation outlines procedures to protect the government’s interests, of course. However we were surprised to learn that there is not a well-defined process for suspending or debarring a company.

We believe some established body, such as the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council, GSA, the Government Accountability Office or other organization, should hear these cases. That body would provide companies with some degree of due process and agencies with a modicum of warning.
We appreciate that this case was unique, and we are thankful that the suspension and disbarment process is not used often. But we do not believe that the EPA/IBM case demonstrates how the system should work.

The lesson seems to be that there needs to be a better-defined process to handle similar situations in the future.

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