Contracting gone bad: One man's view

Last byte | A conversation with legal scholar and author Charles Tiefer

To borrow from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," something is rotten in
Washington; at least, that is the view of legal scholar and author
Charles Tiefer. Tiefer, who earned his law degree from Harvard
University, knows federal procurement because he spent 11 years as
deputy general counsel to the House from 1984 to 1995.
He subsequently became a government contracting professor at the
University of Baltimore's School of Law. He is the author of "Veering
Right," in which he states that the Bush administration circumvented
Congress and manipulated the public to serve its own agenda.
Tiefer spoke recently with Deputy Editor William Welsh about contracting
practices in Iraq, acquisition management at the Homeland
Security Department and the effectiveness of inspectors general.


Q: What did you learn
from working as the
House deputy general
counsel?

Tiefer:
The tremendous
value of active
congressional oversight,
especially when both
parties work at it.
During the period from
1984 to 1995, there was
a very lively procurement
oversight effort by
Chairman Jack Brooks
and ranking Republican
Frank Horton of the
[then] House
Government
Operations
Committee.

They not only
ferreted out
problems of
waste, fraud and
abuse but also
drew on their
oversight for
many legislative
improvements,
starting with the
Competition in
Contracting Act of
1984. That was a period
when Republicans felt
proud to ferret out contracting
problems.

Q: Has the Bush
administration relied
too much on sole-source
contracting in Iraq?
What should it have
done differently?

Tiefer:
The Bush
administration threw
away many of its opportunities
to salvage something
from the intervention
in Iraq by a misguided
set of procurement
policies. By sole
sourcing or otherwise
not competing work,
contracts tended to go
overwhelmingly to the
big American companies
that were politically loyal
[to the administration].
This froze out the contribution
from American
small business and radically
alienated businesses
overseas and potential
local support in Iraq.
Q: What was the result?

Tiefer:
Our diplomatic
isolation ? although
following somewhat
from how we went into
Iraq against the wishes
of the rest of the world
? owes a lot, unfortunately,
to how our procurement
policies both
for military support and
reconstruction seemed
to the rest of the world.
We appeared to be hogging
the business opportunities
for big companies
such as Halliburton
and Bechtel.

Q: Did the sole-source
awards violate any competition
laws?

Tiefer:
Yes. The administration
sole-sourced
the biggest reconstruction
contract to
Halliburton on a pathetically
unjustified rationale
that it had the
standing contract to put
out oil fires when, in
fact, during the Persian
Gulf War it was Bechtel,
not Halliburton, that
put out the oil fires.
From that corrupt root
grew a whole rotten
tree. Similarly, the contracts
that supplied personnel
who ended up
participating in the
abuses at Abu Ghraib
were awarded in flagrant
violation of sound
contracting policy
through inappropriate
vehicles managed by
Interior Department
personnel who couldn't
possibly have a clue of
what disastrous problems
would ensue. A lot
of the reconstruction
gap ? that is, the shortcomings
and shortfalls
of contractors doing
reconstruction ? owe to
the inappropriate use of
large-scale, design-build
contracting when sound
policy would have
parceled out the work to
smaller, nimbler companies.
The list of abuses
of contracting rules
goes on and on.

Q: Do you feel
agencies' IGs have
sufficient authority
and staff to meet their
responsibilities?

Tiefer:
Overall, the IGs
haven't been able to
meet the big challenges
raised by the war in Iraq,
homeland security after
9/11 and the changes in
acquisition practices that
create tough challenges
for auditing. Occasionally,
they even run into
severe threats of political
influence the way it
seems to have occurred
with the General
Services Administration
and recently with the
CIA.

This administration
allows its political figures
to interfere with
IGs and contracting officers
in a heavy-handed
way. On the other hand,
an outstanding success
has been the special IG
for Iraq reconstruction
contracting, who has
done an amazing job literally
under battlefield
conditions.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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