Beware of an election-year feeding frenzy

Buylines | Policies, strategies and trends to watch

A recent story on "CBS Evening News" focused on whether it
was appropriate for a company that is under investigation
to receive congressional earmarks. The story was
part of a series of reports that raised questions about
the practice of earmarking, and the sometimes limited transparency
and accountability associated with this long-standing practice.

Let's be clear. Earmarking raises some
important and legitimate questions. How
much transparency is there? How much
should there be? It is also complicated
because not all earmarks are equal, and
many are perfectly legitimate expressions of
congressional, versus presidential, priorities.
But that debate is entirely different
than the issue raised by the CBS story.

Yet the report raises an even more fundamental
question: to what extent does the
presumption of innocence until proven
guilty apply in federal contracting?
This is a bedrock principle of
our system of laws, but it is also a
principle that is increasingly being
shunted aside. And that should
concern all of us.

In the case CBS cited, the company
involved has not been charged with any
wrongdoing, let alone convicted. Simply
put, an investigation is not a finding; it is
only the first step in determining whether
there is cause for charges to be filed or for
some additional legal action to determine
the guilt or innocence of the parties
involved. It is troubling that some would
suggest it is fair to punish a company or its
employees who depend on the company for
their livelihoods, even when the investigation
is ongoing and there has been no evidence
of guilt. Too often, we have seen individuals
and companies accused of wrongdoing
unfairly punished or stigmatized,
even when they are found innocent in the
end.

The CBS report is not an isolated
instance. During the last few years, we have
witnessed more than a few congressional
hearings in which members of Congress
have, without a full and complete investigation
and judicial process, clearly declared
their views on an individual's or company's
guilt or innocence and demanded that
action be taken immediately. We have advocates
suggesting that cases that were settled
with no finding of guilt or innocence be
considered in determining whether a company
meets the test of corporate responsibility
required of all federal contractors. We
have seen draft audits posted on congressional
Web sites and treated as if
they were conclusive.

And we even have a proposed federal
acquisition regulation that would require
companies to report possible violations
to the government even before they have
a chance to determine if a violation actually
occurred. On the surface, this might
appear reasonable. But companies are
already required to disclose to the government
the violations they discover.
Requiring them to do so before they
even know the nature of the
violation could lead to a highly
premature feeding frenzy.

We need to be careful of this
trend, especially in an election
year when politicians ratchet up
the rhetoric. As taxpayers, we should
demand that our tax dollars be spent
appropriately and that federal contracts be
managed appropriately. But we also must
keep faith with the principles of our system
of laws. And that includes the tenet of innocence
until proven guilty. We forget or
ignore that at our own peril.

Stan Soloway (soloway@pscouncil.org) is president
and chief executive officer of the
Professional Services Council.

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