Suspension, debarment getting agencies' attention, official says

The idea of suspending contractors who run afoul of procurement rules is catching on with agencies, but the process still has a few bugs in it.

The Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee said more agencies are establishing formal suspension and debarment programs and dedicating more staff to handle referrals and manage cases. Officials are also toughening policies over fraud and training staff to act decisively, according to a letter sent in June to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The letter was recently posted online.

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“Progress is apparent,” David Sims, acting chairman of the suspension and debarment committee, wrote in the letter. Dan Blalock, U.S. Navy counsel, is currently committee chairman.

Sims acknowledged that oftentimes suspension and debarment work has been treated as collateral duty. The result has been unnecessary delays in processing cases. Agency officials have also hampered their ability to identify problems and correct them because of a lack of central monitoring and oversight.

“These findings confirm there is much room for improvement and work that needs to be done,” Sims wrote.

But the Government Accountability Office issued a report documenting flaws in the suspension and debarment process.

Bill Woods, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, said Oct. 6 in congressional testimony that he found certain characteristics of solid suspension and debarment programs.

“One point is clear: Agencies that fail to devote sufficient attention to suspension and debarment issues likely will continue to have limited levels of activity and risk fostering a perception that they are not serious about holding the entities they deal with accountable,” Woods told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform Subcommittee.

This isn't just in-house attention. While agencies haven’t dedicated many resources to suspension and debarment work, agencies have not contributed to the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee either. The committee has been left with no dedicated staff or budget, causing it to struggle to run its operations of governmentwide oversight and coordination among agencies.

However, he added, officials at agencies that need improvements are willing to make the changes.

A number of agencies with IG Offices send representatives from these offices to participate in the committee’s meetings. The broadened membership base allows the committee to perform more effectively as a support structure for coordination and a forum for agencies to share best practices and lessons they’ve learned.

As for other agencies, the Interior Department dedicated staff in its inspector general’s office and within its procurement office to help the department’s suspension and debarment official.

The United State Agency for International Development made efforts to correct flaws in its process with a “partner compliance and performance oversight” division.

The Transportation Department gives officials 45 days to take action. It also introduced a new data collection system.

The suspension and debarment official at the Justice Department implemented an electronic case tracking system. The system is accessible to employees within Justice Management Division, who are involved in the suspension and debarment program, Michael Allen, deputy assistant attorney general, wrote to the department’s IG Sept. 13. The letter was included in an audit released Oct. 17.

The IG’s audit found Justice officials didn’t quickly or accurately post their debarment decisions in the Excluded Parties List System.

EPLS is the central repository to share these suspension and debarment rulings across government. Suspension and debarments have governmentwide effects, and putting the information into EPLS notifies other departments.

“We concluded that the inaccurate and untimely entries by DOJ create the potential for awards to be inadvertently made to suspended or debarred parties by awarding officials throughout the federal government,” according to the IG’s report.

Allen said that the management division has trained its new employees, which replaced a group of acquisition staff that retired, to enter data into EPLS. The division also has a process for notifying senior procurement chiefs about decisions.

The IG wrote that the division resolved its concerns with suspension and debarment issues.

Similar to these agencies' changes, Woods said agencies need resources, detailed policies and an active referral process for good suspension and debarment programs.

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Tue, Jul 9, 2013

The suspension and disbarment action is oftentimes against the contractor, the owners of the firm and has included employees. When a small business takes that kind of hit particularly when agencies are known to discrimate, it is clear that not only is the company punsihed, but the company's owners and key personnel too.

Sun, Nov 20, 2011 Jane California

I totally agree with the comments from AL, JD and especially Butch that it seems like the Government exempts itself from accountability.

Two points, one for the debarred list and another for GAO.

First, having a debarred list of companies and/or individuals not conducting business in ethical or in a legal manner is the responsibility of the Government. However, as Butch mentioned, “at what point does a federal agency and their procurement office become accountable…” To resolve this issue, OMB has the responsibility to also have an anonymous “whistle blower” program for contractors to report violations and keep a list of contracting officers, contract specialists, and program offices not following procurement rules, and, then, debar these individuals from working in that capacity or separate them from Government employment.

This reminds me of a recent event on the news that our elected representatives are engaging in insider trading without consequences. If a citizen of the US does that we would be held accountable and sent to jail. To mitigate this problem, a proposal has been made to prohibit any representatives from engaging in insider trading if they are involved in a committee receiving any advanced information on the market.

So if the Government want to put contractors on a debar list, we should expect a debar list for Government personnel and representatives to demonstrate equal treatment under the law, a level playing field, and a process for checks and balances. This would make anybody tempted to act in unethical or illegal ways to think twice. This would be a better method of preventive action.

Second, I can personally vouch for Butch’s comments about GAO. Butch is absolutely correct that GAO cannot hold an Agency accountable, request documentation, or enforce corrective actions. For bid protests, GAO is like a “lion without teeth” and entirely ineffective. Why spent millions of dollars to staff this section of GAO dealing with bid protests that does not even have the authority and jurisdiction to enforce a corrective action on an Agency? My suggestion would be to let the commercial courts deal with bid protests, as long as the contract does not deal with National security. The commercial courts already have a mechanism for discovery, and have the authority to issue judgment AND enforcement. Plus, it would not cost any additional tax dollars to fund. The resources are already there.

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 Butch Maryland

I find it ironic that suspension and disbarment of contractors is getting the Federal Agencies' attention when these same Agency's procurement officers should be getting suspended and disbarred. By urging a crackdown on contractors for running "afoul" of the procurement rules is hypocritical when in many cases it's the Agencies themselves that need to be cracked down on for running "afoul" of these same procurement rules. At what point does a federal agency and their procurement office become accountable for breaking FAR, because the Government Accountability Office (GAO) certainly does not have the power to do this. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) does not have any power to make a corrupt agency that blatantly violates FAR, commits fraud, abuses the power of their office accountable for any of their actions. It is a conflict of interest having a federal government watch dog agency, the GAO make the decisions on these bid protests. For example the GAO cannot and will not make an Agency provide all documentation in regards to a bid protest. As a result the GAO will refuse to sustain a bid protest on meritorious arguments based on lack of evidence. If a bid protest is sustained most likely it is due to timeliness. When a protester does have their argument sustained all the GAO can do is recommend corrective a action to be performed by an Agency. The GAO has no jurisdiction over an Agency in which to make sure that these corrective actions are performed correctly or for that matter, performed at all. This is a far cry from the GAO mission statement, which says, “The GAO is to ensue the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.” In the end it is the contractors that are to be held accountable for running "afoul" of the procurement rules but never the federal government or their procurement offices.

Wed, Oct 19, 2011

Would it matter? The company just goes out and changes it's name and comes back with the same stuff all over again.

Tue, Oct 18, 2011

Since when are suspensions and debarments a form of punishment? No, I'm not naive, but I'm wondering when we collectively decided no longer to give even lip service to the notion that suspensions and debarments are mere administrative actions taken in the course of determining a firm's responsibility (as defined in the Federal Acquisition Regulation).

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