I have always limited posting here to government contracting issues. I am about to violate that self-imposed limitation, doing it on a subject about which I am definitely not an expert. That is probably dangerous thing to do in the blogosphere, but taking a risk now and then keeps life interesting. These ruminations are prompted by an article in Vox.com about the legality of the Berghdahl prisoner swap, today’s satire from Borowitz, and my pondering whether there was any possible way President Obama could complete his 2008 pledge to shut down Guantanamo. And now, in a spasm of synchronicity, President Obama has launched today another effort to close Guantanamo; however, the President’s proposal would require congressional approval and we know how likely that is to happen in an election year. I’m thinking about a way to close Guantanamo down without congressional approval. So here goes, my flagrantly Machiavellian, blatantly textualist way to get this done. Read the rest of this entry »
In a recent episode of the epic legal soap opera, Suits, an Assistant DA and the show’s protagonist reached an oral agreement that the Assistant DA later reneged on. This reminded me of the general proposition in the world of government contracts that, to coin a phrase, oral agreements are worth the paper they’re written on. A few years back, my opposition in a bid protest ran into this truism. Read the rest of this entry »
When a bidder in a government real estate property auction feels in some way the victim of unfair or improper treatment by the government is there a remedy available? And by remedy, I mean some formal process that will subject the government agency’s action to an independent review. If you ask the General Services Administration (the seller of most surplus federal property), they will say there is no remedy. But in my view, that is not quite the case. Read the rest of this entry »
In one of my first posts on this blog, I said “the government customer is still the one customer that has its own cadre of policemen and is quite willing to send them after vendors whom they find annoying.” (http://wp.me/piEZm-3) Now, undoubtedly to provide an updated confirmation of my platitude, the FBI and IRS CID have raided the offices of a government contractor in Meriden, Connecticut. (http://tinyurl.com/66p2g7w) The contractor was involved in $3.3 billion in military housing contracts with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Northwest for more than 600 homes; with the U.S. Air Force at bases in Florida, Georgia, Arkansas and Massachusetts, and at a U.S. Army base in Missouri.. Every one of these projects collapsed with deadlines missed and subcontractors suing for payment. Although, as I know from personal experience, the military services aren’t very well staffed to manage the development of privately owned military housing, eventually the compounding contracting disasters brought so much attention that the contractor obviously came to the attention of those government agents who carry guns and they swooped in and carted off boxes of document and computers.
The poor attorney who apparently has been representing the company in its negotiations with the government was not aware of the raid when contacted by a reporter. Naturally, the reporter didn’t hear from the attorney again. I only hope he had learned the rule of legal representation that I was taught while an in-house attorney with GE: the lawyer never goes to jail. Which is to say, advise the client, but don’t participate in the conspiracy.
While this is perhaps an extreme example of a government contract (and possibly a government contractor) gone bad, it is good to remember that for the government contracting officer, the agents with guns are only a phone call away. To be successful in this business, government contractors must have both knowledge and integrity. Either one without the other is a good recipe for one of these surprise visits.
On March 4, 2010, the Small Business Administration proposed new regulations for the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program. (75 Fed. Reg. 10030-10058) These regulations are authorized by legislation enacted in 2000, and follow a long and convoluted rule making process. The biggest change from previously promulgated regulations is making the the program applicable to 83 NAICS Industry Codes as opposed to the four Industry Codes previously included in the program. The list of these newly selected Industry Codes can be found at 75 Fed. Reg. 10036-10037. The list of Industry Codes won’t be included in the regulation, but will be available on the SBA website. This change in selected Industry Codes is based on an extensive rethinking of the process for identifying Industry Codes in which women-owned small businesses are either “underrepresented” or “substantially underrepresented.” The details of how these Industry Codes are selected is probably of interest only to those with graduate degrees in statistics and a great deal of patience.
One other interesting change is the elimination of a requirement that an agency must make its own analysis “that would justify a restriction on competition under the equal protection requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution” and, based on an analysis of the its procurement history “make a determination of whether there is evidence of relevant discrimination in that industry by that agency.” (13 CFR 127.501(b)) I think it’s a fair guess that most agencies would be, and probably have been, slow to tackle this burden.
The WOSB Program is probably not the panacea that some might hope since the statute allows WOSB set-asides only for procurements of less that $5,000,000 for contracts classified under the manufacturing Industry Codes and $3,000,000 for other contracts. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see that the ten-year old legislation might now be given a reasonable chance to have the impact originally intended.
In a recent Court of Federal Claims decision (Ozdemir v. United States, 19 November 2009), Judge Damich clarified the Court’s jurisdiction over protests of solicitations and awards of contracts other than procurement contracts. In a time when the government is pumping out vast sums for economic recovery through a number of formal vehicles (grants, etc.), this remedy could become increasingly important to those frustrated in their dealings with the federal government.
The Ozdemir case arises from the very first solicitation issued by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (“ARPA-E”). This solicitation requested concept papers so ARPA-E could select promising energy-related technologies for research and development funding. To provide this funding, the solicitation identified grants, cooperative agreements and technology investment agreements as the anticipated legal vehicles. Interested parties were required to request an “application control number” by a given deadline. Mr. Ozdemir failed to make a timely request for this number and the agency refused to consider his concept paper when he submitted it.
The government chose to defend against Mr. Osdemir’s protest by moving to dismiss on the theory that the Court did not have jurisdiction because the solicitation did not relate to a procurement. Although the parties argued over whether or not the solicitation related to a procurement (the solicitation included one reference to a procurement instrument), the Court sidestepped this issue to deal with a more fundamental issue, whether the Court had jurisdiction over non-procurement protests.
After concluding that the precedents offered by the government did not support their position that the Court’s bid protest jurisdiction did not extend beyond procurement matters, the Court proceeded to set out two bases for its conclusion that its bid protest jurisdiction extends beyond procurement matters. (Senior Judge Merrow applied similar reasoning in Red River Holdings, LLC, v. United States, July 17, 2009, however, in that case the protest involved a maritime contract, which was clearly a procurement matter, and the parties agreed that the Court had jurisdiction; the jurisdiction issue was raised sua sponte by the Court.)
First, the Court found support in something cleverly called the Last Antecedent Rule (which, it turns out, is rather like the Pirate Code, more of a suggestion than a rule). The Last Antecedent Rule is a rule of statutory interpretation that was explained by the Federal Circuit in Anydrides & Chems. Inc. v. United States, 130 Fed.3d 1481, 1483 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (quoting 2A Sutherland Statutory Construction, 4th ed., § 47.33):
The rules of grammar apply in statutory construction:
Referential and qualifying words and phrases, where no contrary intention appears, refer solely to the last antecedent, which consists of “the last word, phrase, or clause that can be made an antecedent without impairing the meaning of the sentence.”
The government focused on the last phrase of the jurisdictional statute (28 USC § 1491(B)(1)), “in connection with a procurement or proposed procurement,” claiming that this phrase modified the entire sentence. Because there is no comma immediately before this phrase, the Court, applying the Last Antecedent Rule, determined that the phrase modified only the immediately preceding phrase (“any alleged violation of statute or regulation”), not the entire sentence. Thus, the rest of the sentence provides several independent bases of jurisdiction, including a protest against a solicitation for proposals for a proposed contract and a protest against a proposed award. The Court found its jurisdiction in these phrases since ARPA-E had clearly issued a solicitation which contemplated an award.
Also the government argued that “contract” in this context meant procurement contract, relying on the definitions in the Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act (31 USC 6301-08), the Court found this assertion unsupported and held that “contract” in § 1491(b)(1) encompasses a wide range of formal agreements, including grants and cooperative agreements.
The Court also noted that the ARPA-E solicitation clearly contemplated an “award,” giving the Court a second basis for jurisdiction as a protest against a proposed award. This does not seem to me to be as strong a basis for jurisdiction, since at best, Mr. Ozdemir was complaining about a refusal to consider an award to him, not a proposed award to a third party. However, given the Court’s expansive reading of 1491(b)(1) (including the noted “hexadic” use of the conjunction “or”), the idea that one could protest an “award,” without reference to a contract (however defined) and without reference to a solicitation raises some interesting possibilities. Might it cover a financially significant endorsement of a commercial product by a federal agency or federal official that prejudiced a competitor (prejudice being a required element of the Court’s jurisdiction)?
The Court found further support for its reading of § 1491(b)(1) in its analysis of the history of the Court’s bid protest jurisdiction. Specifically, the Court noted that prior to enactment of the current language in § 1491(b)(1) in the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996 (“ADRA”), the Court had jurisdiction over protests involving award of non-procurement contracts, such as timber sales, and that there is no indication that ADRA in any way was intended to restrict the Court’s bid protest jurisdiction, only to expand it.
Although this decision was not the first since 1996 to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction over non-procurement protests, it certainly is unique in its thorough discussion of the issue, all the more intriguing for having occurred in a pro se case.
My personal perspective is that federal agencies have for some time been looking for creative ways to avoid exposure to bid protests, mostly by using highly complex, multi-agency IDIQ procurement vehicles or by having support contractors doing what would normally be agency procurements. It will be interesting to see, in this environment, how the agencies react to this clear assertion of the Court’s jurisdiction over non-procurement bid protests.