Buy Lines: On ethics: vigilance ? and balance

Stan Soloway

At the sentencing of former Boeing Co. executive Mike Sears, who pled guilty for his role in the Darleen Druyun case, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty announced the formation of a new procurement-fraud task force. This is just the latest example of how ethics in government contracting has drawn the spotlight as never before.

Given the unique nature of this business, the attention is, in many ways, a good thing. As the government has increased its focus on ethics, many companies have re-doubled their internal efforts to ensure they have in place the right processes, controls and, most importantly, culture.

Despite this increased focus, however, there is no evidence that actual ethical misconduct has grown. In fact, this was one of the most telling conclusions of the Defense Department's recent internal review of contracts on which Druyun was involved. Most attention was focused on the fact that the department identified eight contracts that warranted further investigation.

What was less widely acknowledged is the Pentagon examined more than 400 contracts involving Druyun. And some of the eight remanded for further review were so identified only because the contract file didn't contain adequate information from which a definitive conclusion could be drawn, not because of any specific indication of wrongdoing.

No misconduct or malfeasance is acceptable, but the fact that no significant issues were identified in more than 98 percent of the cases reviewed serves as an important cautionary tale at a time when some would have us believe that abuse and fraud is rampant, and the credibility of government contracting is under siege.

Today, both government and industry acquisition professionals report a general fear in the marketplace that is reminiscent of the days when even honest errors were treated as major scandals. Because of this fear, the environment on both government and industry sides is becoming increasingly process driven, less open and less communicative.

No one wants to be the next person pilloried in the public square because a strategy didn't work or a contract failed. On top of that, there are those who would like to roll back the procurement reforms of the last decade and who all too liberally use incidents such as the Druyun case to buttress their positions.

In reality, our acquisition system functions well, as the Defense Department review showed. It is also true that the government's ability to meet its many and growing missions is increasingly tied to its ability to work with, manage and partner with the private sector. Thus, it is vital that we resist unjustified attempts to swing the pendulum too far back to those bad old days of insecurity and fear.

We need to foster an environment that tolerates honest mistakes, supports innovation and encourages partnership. And we need an environment in which the senior-most leaders of government continually reiterate their support for and belief in the professionals at the core of our acquisition system, even as they deal harshly with those infrequent but intolerable cases of real malfeasance.

Fostering the kind of partnership that will best serve the government and the taxpayer requires balanced leadership and balanced reactions to the problems that inevitably will arise. Vigilance is essential to ensuring ethical behavior and protecting the public's interests. Vigilantism is not. n

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council; his e-mail is

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