By DANA LIEBELSON
A hero can't fight evil without a good weapon. Luke Skywalker had his lightsaber, Frodo had an elvish sword, Captain America had a bulletproof shield--and the U.S. federal government? Well it has "suspension and debarment," an enforcement tool it can use to go after fraudulent contractors. According to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, many government agencies aren't actually using this procedure--but a POGO expert says that the numbers might not tell the whole story.
The federal government spent more than $535 billion on contracted goods and services in 2010. That’s a lot of money that could potentially be wasted through fraud, bribery, theft or tax evasion. Suspension and debarment helps protect the government’s investments and interests. When a contractor is investigated for misconduct, the U.S. government ‘suspends’ business until the investigation’s completion. In some cases, a fixed-term ‘debarment’ of up to three years is put in place.
From 2006 to 2010, there were about 4,600 suspension and debarment cases related to government contracts or transactions, which represents about 16 percent of cases in the government’s Excluded Parties List System during those years, according to the report. The rest of the cases (about 24,000) related to specific violations of statues, like illegal exporting.
For the report, the GAO reviewed ten agencies that spent more than $1 billion on contracts in 2009. The four agencies that used the suspension and debarment procedure most often were found to share characteristics like having staff dedicated to the program and having detailed guidance that encouraged the use of the practice. The six agencies that didn’t have these characteristics—including the Departments of Labor, Education and Housing and Urban Development—had no suspension and debarment cases in the last five years.
At an Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the report, Bill Woods, GAO director for acquisition and sourcing management, called for these “inactive” agencies to copy the actions of the agencies with more suspensions and debarments.
“Agencies that fail to devote sufficient attention to suspension and debarment issues…risk fostering a perception that they are not serious about holding the entities they deal with accountable” said Woods.
However, according to POGO investigator Neil Gordon, judging agencies by the number of suspensions and debarments might be a superficial way of deciding which agencies are going after fraudulent contractors.
“I just don’t buy that agencies have more or less suspensions and debarments because of some agency-wide policies and practices,” said Gordon. “An agency with a lot of suspension and debarments isn’t necessarily ‘good.’ Maybe they just have really corrupt contractors. And maybe an agency with fewer actions has really honest and responsible contractors.”
He pointed to the section in the GAO report that says a high level of suspension and debarment activity “fosters a perception” of seriousness about holding contractors accountable.
Even if GAO's numbers don’t perfectly reflect the reality of contracting fraud, it’s worth considering whether agencies have enough staffing to wield the important oversight tools of suspension and debarment. But that's just one piece of the puzzle. The bigger question might be this: are some contractors too big to debar?
Regardless, suspension and debarment is an important tool in the government’s fight against corruption. If Batman was recruited to fight fraudulent contractors, he would keep it on his belt at all times.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Image via Flickr user John McNab.