When Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) was chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, he struck fear and some loathing into the hearts of much of the government contracting community. A staunch advocate of competition who conducted eagle-eyed oversight over government procurement activities, Brooks was considered by many company officials as the most powerful force to be reckoned with in government procurement policy, particularly in the multibillion-dollar federal computer contracting arena.
When Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) took over the reins of the committee more than a year ago, Washington area government contractors wondered if they hadn't gone from the frying pan into the fire. Privately, they expressed fears that Conyers would be even more of a fearsome watchdog, particularly in light of his public pronouncements that he intended to use the committee to steer a greater share of federal procurement dollars to economically depressed cities and minority businesses.
These days, however, local industry executives say they are heaving a sigh of relief. Conyers has been slow to try to impose his social agenda on computer procurement, and he seems to have focused most of his attentions on other areas such as the budget process, health, environmental, energy, drug abuse and defense policy.
In the procurement area, Conyers's committee has launched investigations into the operations and accounting practices of defense giant, Northrop Corp., and the Pentagon's Seawolf submarine project. But he has spent much of his energies on efforts to rein in the power of the Office of Management and Budget and on a bill to elevate the Environmental Protection Agency to a Cabinet-level position. He said his committee plans to take action this fall on a measure that would establish a chief financial officer for the federal government and would require uniform accounting procedures throughout the government.
In a recent interview, Conyers said he has spent considerable time broading the scope of the committee, indicating that much of his time this year has been spent asserting the committee's right to have jurisdiction over a wide variety of issues. But he warned that government contracting executives who think he has backed off from his plans to enact a social agenda should not rest too easy, "because they don't know what's in store for them."
Many lobbyists agreed that it is too early to determine the role that Conyers will play in government contracting, and unfair to compare Conyers's 1 1/2 years leading the committee with Brook's 13 years at the helm.
The one major, high-profile investigation by the House Government Operations Committee into computer procurement was a probe last November of International Business Machines Corp.'s clout in the federal market. So far, it has not resulted in any report, legislation or recommendations for changes. It has, however, resulted in considerable controversy and staff turmoil.
The probe was led by committee staff investigator Thomas A. Trimboli, who was fired June 25. Trimboli, who recently became general counsel of Unified Industries Inc., a computer firm based in Springfield, has been described by many as aggressive and strong-willed. Since the November hearings, he has made little attempt to hide his disagreements with Conyers and the committee staff director Julian Epstein, according to several sources.
Conyers said he fired Trimboli because Trimboli was looking for a new job "so affirmatively that people were coming back to me and saying 'You know, Trimboli is getting ready to leave and he is very unhappy.' That became a little bit obnoxious."
Trimboli declined to comment.
Critics of IBM have suggested that Trimboli's firing was connected to IBM's decision to award a $200,000 grant to Conyers's alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit. The grant is intended to enable Wayne State to train teachers to use computers.
Conyers called the allegations about IBM absurd: "I could understand if you said 'IBM is the top contributing organization in your campaign. Can you account for that? Has that influenced you?' I've never heard anybody say 'A university in your city got a dozen computers and we think that influenced your decision.' "
Conyers said that he had nothing to do with the grant going to Wayne State. IBM also denied that there was any connection between the grant and the committee's investigation.
"There is absolutely no connection between the two," said a statement issued by IBM. IBM said that Wayne State was selected in December after submitting a grant proposal and was one of 17 colleges and universities in 16 states that won. IBM said it informed Conyers of the award Feb. 22.
Some committee sources, who have been critical of Conyers on other issues, said that rather than losing interest in the IBM probe, Conyers remains one of the few members on the committee still interested in pursuing it. Those sources said other members of the committee did not believe that the evidence presented in the hearings justified Conyers's initial assertions that the IBM situation was another "Operation Ill Wind," the Justice Department criminal probe in which consultants bribed Pentagon officials to win contracts.
Conyers denied that he has lost interest in the IBM probe, and he said that the investigation has been expanded to other government agencies beyond the Navy. He said a report will be issued before the end of the year.
He added that he continues to be concerned about revelations during the hearings that IBM had informed the federal government two years ago that it mistakenly substituted used equipment for new equipment over a three-year period. He also was critical of the Navy for turning to IBM for technical advice, while apparently shutting out competitors who wanted to give similar technical advice.
However, Conyers agreed that the issue of federal computer procurements may not occupy as much of his time as it did of Brooks's. He said that when Brooks started attacking the lack of competition in the federal computer industry in the early 1980s, the federal computer procurement systems "was an old boy's network. ... It was really tough in those days. We're talking about a custom or practice that was pretty deeply ingrained." Conyers said that has changed considerably because of measures that Brooks sponsored during his tenure as committee chairman.