Contracting officers get too friendly with contractors, senator says

Contracting officers lose objectivity because they are too friendly with companies, McCaskill says.

McCaskill, who is also on the Armed Services Committee, said contracting officers in Iraq are examples of such problems, as many failed to be tough with contractors or even understand what was going on. She said the contracting officers there were often “the low man of the totem pole, who was handed a clipboard” and told to handle a contract.

Contracting officers should stick to auditors’ conclusions on contract pricing to keep the officers' perhaps impaired judgment out of the negotiations, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has said.

The former state auditor from Missouri said Feb. 1 that contracting officers lose objectivity because they get too friendly with the contractors they oversee and build connections with the companies as business partners, and therefore lighten up on tough independent supervision. Auditors don’t have that relationship, which makes them stick to their impartiality in ways the contracting officer could not, she said.

“Contracting officers have an ongoing relationship with the contractors that sometimes impact their ability to see everything clearly as it relates to some of the behavior of the contractors,” said McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Contracting Oversight Subcommittee. During a hearing, McCaskill also conceded she was biased toward auditors.

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Procurement power stays with contracting officers

“There’s just a fine line between cooperation and being co-opted. And the auditor always has to err on the side of not being co-opted,” she said during a hearing that looked into government auditing.

At the hearing, E. Sanderson Hoe, a partner at the McKenna Long and Aldrige law firm, said McCaskill’s view is an unfortunate depiction of what represents contracting officers’ work overall and what they do for the government.

“There are problems, there were problems, problems currently exist,” Hoe said. But that is not representative of the entire history of government contracts.

Negotiations are a part of everyday life in federal contracting, as contracting officers, auditors and the companies work out the details of contracts, Hoe said, adding that no one always gets what they want and often have to give and settle on a suitable deal.

But, he said, auditors are being granted primacy over the officers, even though the Federal Acquisition Regulation empowers them. He mentioned a Jan. 2 memo in which the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) said it will take an auditor's recommendation on a contract's prices. He said it supersedes the decision making authority of the contracting officers.

McCaskill said she supported DCMA's decision to stick with the auditor.

"Their independence is not something that was front and center like with an auditor," McCaskill said about DOD contracting officers.