Agencies increase focus on debarments

More agencies are establishing formal suspension and debarment programs and dedicating more staff to handle referrals and manage cases.

Contractors can expect more suspension and debarment activity as agencies warm up to the idea of punishing them for misbehavior, according to a recent letter from the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee. But around the same time the committee released the letter, the Government Accountability Office issued a report documenting flaws in the suspension and debarment process..

The interagency committee said more agencies are establishing formal suspension and debarment programs and dedicating more staff to handle referrals and manage cases. Officials are also toughening policies over fraud and training staff to act decisively, according to a letter sent in June to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The letter was recently posted online.

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“Progress is apparent,” David Sims, acting chairman of the suspension and debarment committee, wrote in the letter. Dan Blalock, U.S. Navy counsel, is currently committee chairman.

Sims said that oftentimes suspension and debarment work has been treated as collateral duty. The result has been unnecessary delays in processing cases. Agency officials have also hampered their ability to identify problems and correct them because of a lack of central monitoring and oversight.

“These findings confirm there is much room for improvement and work that needs to be done,” Sims wrote.

Bill Woods, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, said Oct. 6 in congressional testimony that, agencies are giving off an air of disregard when it comes to punishing bad companies.

“One point is clear: Agencies that fail to devote sufficient attention to suspension and debarment issues likely will continue to have limited levels of activity and risk fostering a perception that they are not serious about holding the entities they deal with accountable,” Woods told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform Subcommittee.

This isn't just in-house attention. While agencies haven’t dedicated many resources to suspension and debarment work, agencies have not contributed to the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee either. The committee has been left with no dedicated staff or budget, causing it to struggle to run its operations of governmentwide oversight and coordination among agencies.

However, he added that officials at agencies that need improvements are willing to make the changes.

Sims wrote about a few changes.

A number of agencies with IG Offices send representatives from these offices to participate in the committee’s meetings. The broadened membership base allows the committee to perform more effectively as a support structure for coordination and a forum for agencies to share best practices and lessons they’ve learned.

As for other agencies, the Interior Department dedicated staff in its inspector general’s office and within its procurement office to help the department’s suspension and debarment official.

The United State Agency for International Development made efforts to correct flaws in its process with a “partner compliance and performance oversight” division.

The Transportation Department gives officials 45 days to take action. It also introduced a new data collection system.

The suspension and debarment official at the Justice Department implemented an electronic case tracking system. The system is accessible to employees within Justice Management Division, who are involved in the suspension and debarment program, Michael Allen, deputy assistant attorney general, wrote to the department’s IG Sept. 13. The letter was included in an audit released Oct. 17.

The IG’s audit found Justice officials didn’t quickly or accurately post their debarment decisions in the Excluded Parties List System.

EPLS is the central repository to share these suspension and debarment rulings across government. Suspension and debarments have governmentwide effects, and putting the information into EPLS notifies other departments about the punishments.

“We concluded that the inaccurate and untimely entries by DOJ create the potential for awards to be inadvertently made to suspended or debarred parties by awarding officials throughout the federal government,” according to the IG’s report.

Allen said that the management division has trained its new employees, which replaced a group of acquisition staff that retired, to enter data into EPLS. The division also has a process for notifying senior procurement chiefs about decisions.

The IG wrote that the division resolved its concerns with suspension and debarment issues.

Similar to these agencies' changes, Woods said agencies need resources, detailed policies and an active referral process for good suspension and debarment programs.