The District's financial control board repeatedly violated its own regulations governing the purchase of millions of dollars' worth of services, a General Accounting Office report released yesterday concludes.
The report, which examined nine contracts awarded in 1997 and 1998, recommends a series of steps to ensure that the District picks its contractors fairly, gets its money's worth and then monitors contractors' work to make sure they deliver as promised. But the report also expressed regret that the presidentially appointed control board, established four years ago to bring stability to a nearly bankrupt city, has not instituted such changes on its own.
"We recognize that, as the [financial control board] has pointed out, it was a newly established organization and was expected to accomplish the majority of its tasks in a relatively short period of time," the 44-page report says. "However, we believe it was important for the [board] to lead by example by better adhering to its own regulations, ensuring accountability and integrity, and not by following the same type of practices it was established to correct in the District."
Control board Executive Director Francis Smith said yesterday he is moving to improve the contracting system. But Smith, who took over as executive director in May, said the GAO report focuses on a small portion of approved contracts and tries to hold the control board to unreasonable standards.
Given the massive task the presidentially appointed board had been assigned--to quickly and dramatically reshape a dysfunctional city government--it did a decent job of following contracting requirements, Smith said.
"We did what we had to to make sure that change took place," Smith said. "Given hindsight, we might have done things differently. But there was a lot to do under a very short time frame and extraordinarily difficult circumstances."
The nine contracts reviewed by the GAO--worth a total of $13 million--represent only a small share of the more than 140 contracts approved by the control board since it was created in April 1995. The contracts in question were for professional services, such as consultants hired to recruit new staff, do audits or recommend ways to make D.C. government operate more efficiently.
In eight of the nine contracts examined by the GAO, federal auditors found that the control board did not follow its own regulations or comply with generally accepted contracting standards, said Bernard L. Ungar, the GAO's director of government business operations issues.
In March 1998, for example, when the control board awarded $1.1 million in contracts to two consulting firms--Management Partners and the Urban Center--it did not preserve documentation detailing why the firms were picked. The control board records also did not have detailed descriptions of expected results.
Later, auditors found that checks had been sent to the contractors without "invoices to support the amount of or the purpose of the payment." And even though control board records show that the contract with the Urban Center was terminated because of "possible fraudulent invoices," checks were sent to the firm after the termination date, the GAO said.
The GAO also examined an $893,000 no-bid consulting contract that then-D.C. Chief Management Officer Camille C. Barnett arranged in February 1998 for a former colleague. The contract with Texas consultant Cheryl L. Dotson eventually was terminated because it was never approved by the control board and was not truly an "emergency" that merited its no-bid status.
Control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin did not respond to a request for comment. But D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the government operations committee, said part of the reason the control board may have overlooked some details in awarding contracts was that it was given so little time by Congress to do its work.
In 1997, Congress gave the board just 30 days to hire contractors to recommend ways to improve D.C. government.
"The law was absurd," Patterson said, "and many of these contracts were let pursuant to that law."
Patterson said she is confident that since Rivlin took over the control board last year, the board has done more to make sure contracting rules are followed.