Relationship Between Contractor, Army Official, Raises Questions
Friday, August 7, 2009; 12:00 PM
Post staff writer Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Jeff Leen, Assistant Managing Editor for Investigations, were online Friday, Aug. 7, at Noon ET to discuss his investigation of how the relationship between an Army official and a private contractor led to allegations on contracts that were worth up to $191 million.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thank you for joining us. Investigations editor Jeff Leen and I are eager to answer your questions and read your comments.
Acquisitions in D.C.: This story sends chills up my spine. I work in Acquisitions (aka procurement) for the federal government. I have seen amazing, ethical, war trodden contracting officers put on the chopping block time and time again by upper management. I have seen the unabashed, bribe receiving, unethical COs slide under the radar time and time again, and subsequently awarded by our internal customers for meeting deadlines and awarding to favored contractors.
This tale makes me not want to stay in the acquisition field. I am young(ish) -- my early 30s. I hope to have a baby warrant ($100K) by years end. If I want to move up -- larger and larger warrants -- I will face these situations on a daily basis. I hope the Department of Defense and acquisitions field as a whole see what these sort of bed partner relationships, and subsequent Washington Post articles, are doing to the morale of young professionals in the field.
I have a personal ethical policy to not accept gifts of any type from vendors. Something as simple as a coffee cup sets up the scene that you accept gifts. I feel the $20-a-year rule should be eliminated, and Acquisitions professionals should not be allowed to accept gifts of any type. Eliminate the grey area -- let us live only in black and white.
Please, authors, comment on the fact as Acquisitions officials we have mandatory ethics training every 12 months. In addition we have mandatory financial reporting on an annual basis. We are bombarded with the ethical code at every training. The fact the CO never saw the ethical line that was crossed is absolute malarkey. I know the line. I choose to not cross it.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. We have heard such frustration and concerns many times over the last several years, while focusing much attention on federal contracting. The legal and ethical lines are drawn a lot more clearly in regulations and law than some people seem to realize. It's important to note that the procurement system is under a great deal of stress because of the surge in outsourcing. We have found that contracting officials are often overwhelmed by the workload.
Vienna, Va.: Thank you for publishing this article. I think it raises some really important points about the way not just our government, but a lot of businesses operate -- via connections. That being said, how far can connections go? As the saying goes, "It's half what you know, half who you know," right? At what point does a friendly relationship become an ethical issue?
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Those ethical lines are spelled out in federal regulations and laws and are up to authorities to ultimately determine. The Army's criminal investigation began almost a year ago. Other officials examined the circumstances in the year before. We're going to keep monitoring the progress of the Army's probe.
Washington, D.C.: Bob --
Would you agree that the "procurement reforms" advocated by the Clinton/Gore National Performance Review (NPR) were the underlying cause for the mess your article profiles? These were championed by people like Steve Kelman at Harvard, who has since gone on to sit on contractor boards, as well as doing much consulting work for contractors. As a Democrat, it pains me to see this, and also causes me to worry that the Obama Administration may repeat this disaster.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: There's no question that the procurement reforms launched by the Clinton administration had many unintended consequences, many of them associated with the far-greater reliance on private contractors for open-ended technology projects and for jobs that once were largely held by civil servants. The landscape has changed dramatically, but the oversight workforce has not kept pace, as documented by many IG and GAO reports.
Arlington, Va.: The Army or the DCIS need to forward the completed investigation to the appropriate authorities at the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals so that both the individuals involved can have their eligibility to maintain a security clearance adjudicated. If both parties have SCI access than the investigation needs to be forwarded to DIA.
This has not happened yet.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thank you for your insight.
Fremont, Mich.: Where's the beef? The personal interactions described in this alleged story would due credit to a Russian novel. Was the government actually harmed in anyway by any of this nonsense? Was value given for value received? The current thrust of Federal procurement regulations and conflict of interest rules ignore this primary question and concentrate on form over substance. The media abets this focus since it provides grist for your daily mill. The question you might have asked is, what did all these "investigations'" cost the taxpayers, and what good will ultimately come from them?
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: As documents show, an Army official concluded that the integrity of the system was compromised. The same Army official found evidence that at least two contracts were awarded under questioned circumstances. The extent of the harm is not yet known.
Fairfax, Va.: The biggest issue facing the acquisition groups these days is talent, the ability to actually do the job correctly. Contracting folks have had their positions and authority removed over the past several years, thereby allowing most contracting award decisions to those being courted by government contractors. Very simple to follow the paper trail in ANY agency, all you have to do is look.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: In the course of my reporting I have found this to be true in some cases. The problem with the contracting workforce is so pronounced that the Obama administration has said it would hire thousands of additional contracting employees. Thanks for your thoughts.
San Clemente, Calif.: These types of stories come out all the time in our local San Diego paper. Do you think the military in San Diego is particularly corrupt? Or is the local paper just unusually, by MSM standards, interested in the story? By the way, nothing ever comes of these revelations, anyway. Too many people have got too much at stake to change the system.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Interesting observation. As for the effect of "these revelations," we believe it's important to shine a bright light on the operations of government. Hopefully, when there's a problem, people will take note.
Springfield, Va.: Curious as to what prompted the article?
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: We hear all the time about allegations of impropriety in government and business operations. We are always interested in checking them out.
Reston, Va.: Obviously you and your editors have never been involved in Federal Sales. What you have described is exactly what I would expect from any person hired for a sales position. In particular, making sure that there are specifications in every RFP that preclude the use of any of your competitors is the gold standard for federal sales people. Lunches and travel to product shows and educational events are the norm. This whole article is much adieu about nothing.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Now that's a really interesting perspective. What do the rest of you think about it?
Arlington, Va.: Why isn't Raymond doing time? He admitted passing acquisition-sensitive documents.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: The evidence developed by Army officials was passed on to criminal investigators almost a year ago.
Chantilly, Va.: Raymond was a Program Manager, and many of the things he did can't be done by someone in that position. There had to be 1102 contracting personnel who went along with what he wanted or they would not have occurred. I'm not sure I understand how the Army messed up the investigation so far, but having worked for the Army as an acquisition civilian over 25 years ago, I can tell you that nothing has changed except the players. Everyone seems to forget the lessons of Ill Wind.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thank you for your interesting observations.
Fairfax Station, Va.: Is anyone really surprised by these revelations? While I applaud the level of excellent detail in this report, I fear that nothing will change, as the system that allows feds and contractors to work in close proximity lends itself to abuse. The players involved will only work harder to cover their trails, and will not take it upon themselves to conduct their duties with honor and integrity. Whether overt arrangements like dating partners or covert ones with lobbying muscle, this problem is one that won't change... it will just evolve!
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: This is a gloomy prognosis. It may be right, but then that would be accepting that the procurement system cannot be improved. Do you others agree, or is there hope for the system?
Reston, Va.: In my opinion, government contracting rules should be amended to exclude retired military personnel (those receiving retirement compensation)from employment in the defense contracting industry.
There are two reasons for this:
1. The taxpayer is paying these individuals twice (a retirement check plus a paycheck). If this were not allowed, it would open those jobs to the free market, and the paycheck cost component of this would possibly be reduced.
2.Kingdom building and politics prevail in this arrangement which adds to the total cost. The closer taskings can be kept to well-planned cost/schedule and performance targets, the better.
Having said that, I feel that the system would benefit if retired military officers could be allowed serve as non-paid advisors and perhaps even as mentors on programs.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thank you for your comments.
Arlington, Va.: There's a lot of talk about the lack of an adequate acquisition work force, and certainly that make a difference. However, don't you think the laws are now so relaxed compared to fifteen years ago that a lot of more oversight people might not make that much of a difference unless those laws and regulations are changed? After all, what's the point of having a lot of "police" if the speed limit is 500 mph?
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: The laws probably aren't too lax in many cases. At issue is the enforcement and oversight. Meanwhile, procurement jobs are harder in some ways because of the reforms in the 1990s. Contracting officers must evaluate projects based on best value, and in many cases, not best price. The problem is that many of the projects are quite complex and arcane -- and only the contractors really have a grasp on what's being proposed.
Arlington, Va.: The comment by Reston, unfortunately, is of the type that gives government contractors a bad name. As a group, those in "federal sales" are like any other group -- some honest, some not. The important thing is to fully enforce ethics laws and rules to shine the light on illegal and unethical behavior by both Government employees and contractors. Feds are a mixed bag as well.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Contracting Officer at a large civilian agency. And I think the culpable individuals should be disciplined and/or prosecuted to the fullest extent possible -- on behalf of those of us who take ethics very seriously.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thanks much for the contribution.
Arlington, Va.: The comment by Reston, Va. regarding the goals of federal sales people is also very true of commercial sales agents. They build relationships at high levels in the user groups of their customers and make sure that the projects specifications and SOWs can only be filled by their company. Trips, gifts, and golf outings are the norm.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Does that sound familiar to the rest of you? Thanks for the post.
Alexandria, Va.: I agree with Reston, Va. I run a federal sales organization for a small business and know that its part of our job to understand the requirements and to position our capability over the other firms. Take a look at some of the major software companies in town who pick off one small company after another in acquisitions, they hire retired senior leadership from the government in order to "work their rolodex," and yet nobody questions that. This story suggests that the relationship with Campbell and Raymond is unethical. Take a look at some of the big SIs and major software players in this town and tell me that's not the unethical end here where it is "who you know" and nothing more. You guys are going after the wrong players...keep digging and take a look into some of the other contracts that award to the giants and see if who they have working for them didn't guide the award to the tune of billions of dollars.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thanks for the suggestion. We'll keep plugging away.
Warren, Mich.: It honestly reads to me like a hatchet job from a fired employee who clearly accessed and gave you sensitive government information in exchange for a story to be written. The closing final paragraphs says it all when it is clear that Ms. Strong is bitter and digging up a way to make her story known. I agree with the previous comment that it sounds like a Russian novel.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: I wrote the story based on public records obtained through government agencies and through interviews with people involved.
Acquisitions in D.C.: Per Reston -- yes, fairs are important ways in which the government does business. However, in large dollar contracts COs and offerors must not communicate. Period. It creates an unfair advantage -- think of all the money wasted by the competitors in quote development -- which, in the end, costs the government money (prices go up on the next quote to covers losses).
After I submitted my comments I received an email from a current contract holder wanting to chat with me "offline" and away from the COs ears. The contract is up for bid in a year, and I know they are digging. I refused. I also forwarded the email to my supervisors.
Losing my career and my retirement are so not worth giving a helping hand to a less then ethical CO or vendor.
These COs and all the players should be Leavenworth breaking rocks like all the other COs who took bribes. I know of COs who lost their retirement over $200K sketchy contracts. Again, it isn't worth it.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: This is very interesting insight into the right way of doing it. Thank you for sharing.
In particular, making sure that there are specifications in every RFP that preclude the use of any of your competitors is the gold standard for federal sales people.: You forgot to mention, your much about nothing argument just happens to be illegal. That is, to issue an RFP that skews the specifics to a particular product in an effort to gain an unfair advantage in the acquisition. Not saying it does not happen, but if your team is doing this and getting away with it (with your knowledge and consent), you sir or madam, are breaking the law. And it is folks like you that allows this type of practice to perpetuate itself.
What is needed is for more of these cases to result in some judicial punishment, not just the big high profile cases, but put a few more folks in jail (from both government and contractor), and it will subside. The threat is just not there. I understand the oversight is lacking, but the acceptance by those entrusted to be responsible fiduciary for the taxpayer has just evolved to accept this as normal practice. It is the taxpayers money after all. This no-harm no-foul nonsense must end.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: And there's this...
Baltimore, Md.: I read the story and then read many of the comments on the story. Interestingly, the most thoughtful (and best written) were from people who seem to be truly knowledgeable about the minutiae of defense contracting, and they demolished all of Mr. Raymond's arguments re: having no knowledge that what he did was improper or illegal. They also, unfortunately, agreed that this was endemic to the system.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thanks for the input. There's no question that a lot of contracting folk are adding their two cents, and we're grateful for the insights.
Seattle: I think there needs to be a big reform in contracting with government as a whole. I question how contracts were awarded and what sort of metric was used to determine the winner.
As for some of the reform that others have suggested with retired military or federal workers, there needs to be more restrictions. For example, they can't have any involvement in a contract from the last location few locations they worked. They also need to recluse themselves in situations where they knew the person at the agency because of prior jobs.
They also need to improve the whistle-blowing protection rules.
The incident with the lawyer looks a lot like a whistle blower retaliation.
The whistle-blowing law needs to be expanded not just with protection, but in terms of compensation and the ability of the whistle blower to get a new job in another agency.
Personally there is no way I could ever work in contracting. I would blow the whistle with any small infraction, or appearance of one, I saw.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Do others agree? How would you reform the reforms that have contributed in many ways to the current problems in the procurement system?
Acquisitions in D.C.: I am fortunate to have a strong manager who follows the FAR by the letter. She does push the limits, but she never crosses them. I also had a supervisor who signed any PO or Contract put in front of him without reading the file. Who is the more popular person? The latter, naturally. Under the supervisor I learned absolutely nothing and was awarding POs under terrible misconceptions. Under this manager I am growing, evolving, and learning.
It really comes down to empowered COs who do the right thing, and are training the next generation of acquisitions professionals. Sadly, this manager is retiring. Sadly, I will be placed back under the terrible supervisor.
There is a perfect storm brewing in acquisitions -- a wave of retirement of seasoned COs, 1102 as a newly professional series, over trained but under supervised, and a government run by contracts.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: That sounds unsettlingly familiar. You're lucky to have a disciplined manager. The rules, though a pain at times to be sure, are there for a reason.
Robert O'Harrow Jr.: We're signing off now. Thank you for your comments. The detail that many of you shared shows there's a lot of expertise and informed concern out there. Please feel free to contact either of us with any tips or documents.
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