House Committee Probes No-Bid Contract at DHS

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007

A House oversight committee is investigating a no-bid contract awarded by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement that involves a senior government official and his former colleagues at a private consulting firm.

The Homeland Security Committee probe follows a Washington Post article about the arrangement. Committee officials said they plan to focus on whether the department's ethical guidelines were followed and whether internal policies governing the use of sole-source contracts are rigorous enough.

Though the $579,000 contract is small by government standards, committee officials said they believe the way it was awarded, without competition, may represent a broader pattern in the department.

"The Bush administration has turned sole-source contracting exceptions on their head -- they have made what should be a rare occurrence into a routine practice," said the committee's chairman, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) "When old-boys-network contractors are telling their buddies in the government how to avoid competition rules and give them contracts, it's the American taxpayers who pay the price."

The counternarcotics office awarded the contract to get help in developing a "strategic plan and performance measurement system" for the war on drugs, according to contracting documents. The official initially designated to the lead the project was Scott Chronister, who worked with the consultants before joining the government in 2005, documents show.

Chronister contacted one of his former colleagues seeking help for the office in July 2006. The consultant suggested an approach that would enable the Homeland Security office to hire him and another of Chronister's former colleagues without competition, according to documents and interviews.

Last September, the office awarded a contract to the consultants. Chronister was not involved in the award. The deal was structured to pay the contractors for their time for up to two years, but officials said yesterday it would not be renewed for the second year.

A recent congressional report estimated that the amount of federal procurement spending without "full and open competition" has tripled, to $207 billion, since 2000.

The director of the counternarcotics office, Uttam Dhillon, declined to comment for this article. In a previous interview, Dhillon defended the contract. He said that ethics and contracting officials at the department had reviewed the arrangement and approved it. Those officials advised Dhillon not to allow Chronister to work directly with a subcontractor, who had employed Chronister until 2005. Dhillon said Chronister had been "walled off" from such dealings several days before the contract took effect.

The status of the contractor's performance measurement project remains unclear. The document that was produced is under review.

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