Feds caught in widespread pattern of secrecy regarding sole-source awards
Just what is the federal government hiding from Americans in its mysterious no-bid Department of Homeland Security contracts?
Questions raised about redactions in one federal contract have led to WND’s discovery of a widespread pattern of secrecy regarding no-bid, sole-source awards by the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, whose agencies – with just two exceptions – frequently keep the public in the dark about such matters and have done so for years.
A review of hundreds of contracting documents – with a particular focus on Justification for Other than Full and Open Competition, or JOFOC, reports – reveals, at a minimum, redactions of public information that at least one DHS agency candidly acknowledged were unjustified.
On the other extreme is inconsistent compliance with Federal Acquisition Regulation, or FAR, which establishes, based on federal code, how compliance with competition and reporting requirements can be achieved.
This combination of secrecy and outright failure to comply was detected through an extensive examination of contracting notices uploaded to the government’s Federal Business Opportunities, or FedBizOpps, database.
Though the magnitude of omissions varied from agency to agency, a pattern of redactions – most frequently related to contract costs – missing or redacted approvals from procurement officials, and outright failure to publicly post JOFOC documents that otherwise would have fully alerted taxpayers to noncompetitive awards was evidenced department-wide.
These partially concealed contracting actions involved a wide range of equipment and services, from routine administrative-supply purchases to large technology acquisitions.
Among hidden data that WND discovered were the arguably inconsequential purchases of office furniture and meals. The corresponding names of contracting officials responsible for approving those and other noncompetitive purchases were redacted in many instances.
This analysis does not suggest DHS never achieves compliance with federal law and regulations governing procurement practices. Indeed, this author – who has analyzed federal procurement practices since the William J. Clinton administration first put these records online in the 1990s – has observed general compliance with the law insofar as competitive contracts are concerned.
But many details about sole-source, no-bid contracts awarded by nearly all DHS agencies are cloaked in secrecy. Consequently, those noncompetitive awards often do not satisfy federal reporting requirements designed to ensure transparency.
Though the following list of agencies does not comprise all DHS Operational and Support Components, it does offer every DHS entity that is searchable – and subsequently examined – via the database:
- U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, or USCIS,
- Customs and Border Protection, or CBP,
- Office of the Inspector General, or OIG,
- Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, or FLETC,
- Immigration & Customs Enforcement, or ICE,
- Transportation Security Administration, or TSA,
- United States Coast Guard, or USCG,
- and U.S. Secret Service, or USSS.
The DHS Office of the Chief Procurement Officer, or OCPO, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, likewise are searchable via FedBizOpps. Few instances of redactions were discovered.
Indeed, these two entities were found to be significantly more transparent and consistent than their fellow DHS units in making contracting information – including the names of officials involved in those no-bid procurement decisions – available to the public.
TSA: Just the start
This inquiry began with a series of basic questions posed to the TSA, which recently awarded a noncompetitive contract to Narcorps Specialties. Narcorps is an educational services company created in 2016 by a former employee of Ramcor Services Group, the contractor tasked with providing “Role Players Support Services” since 2013.
See samples of the lack of transparency:
TSA terminated its relationship with Ramcor in December, declaring the company breached its contract by failing to provide role players for a “reality based” bomb-detection initiative. In order to prevent disruption to federal air marshal and flight-deck officer training, it deemed the awarding of this noncompetitive contract urgently necessary, according to the JOFOC document.
FAR generally prohibits the awarding of noncompetitive contracts, deriving its power through federal code. The code simultaneously offers seven possible exemptions from this prohibition, such as – in the case of the TSA-Narcorps contract – FAR Subpart 6.302-2, “Unusual and compelling urgency.”
The regulations likewise require contracting officials to follow specific, multi-step procedures to ensure their exemption requests are justifiable under law.
Insofar as it opted not to open the contract to competition, TSA apparently followed regulations to the letter of the law.
But TSA’s decision to withhold the cost from public scrutiny, however, by its own candid admission was unjustifiable.
“This is public knowledge,” TSA contracting officer Shawnna Sims told WND in a phone interview, unhesitatingly stating that the redaction of the estimated ceiling for this labor-intensive contract – which Sims said is potentially worth about $7 million – was due to “inexperience on the part of our contract specialist.”
WND also spoke with TSA public affairs specialist Brian McNeal, who requested that questions be submitted via e-mail. An unsigned response from [email protected] said “Elements of cost can be redacted for proprietary reasons,” but the “total amount is public knowledge.”
The message also affirmed the potential $7 million, one-year contract cited by Sims, accompanied by a somewhat similar explanation for the blacked-out cost:
“The total amount was redacted as an oversight.”
The ensuing reexamination, however, inadvertently and unexpectedly produced evidence that TSA – as well as CBP and other DHS units – make such “oversights” with greater frequency than the preliminary, official narrative initially suggests.
Next step: Closer look
All JOFOC documents – plus Special Notices and Notices of Intent to award noncompetitive contracts – released in the past year by the two agencies were closely scrutinized, as the following segments will show.
In addition to the above-mentioned TSA-Narcorps endeavor, several other contracting initiatives contained redactions that either were irrelevant to otherwise thorough justifications for no-bid, sole-source awards or were not imminently understandable.
Indeed, out of 26 total JOFOC and Justification & Approval, or J&A, contracting actions that TSA posted in the past year, only four – including one that was erroneously labeled J&A – offered a fully transparent or unredacted look at those award decisions.
The agency, for instance, granted a noncompetitive contract extension granted to QinetiQ, the British company that came under fire in the post-9/11 world for appointing former U.S. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to its board of directors.
TSA in this instance did, indeed, attempt to explain its secrecy.
“Any and all redactions in this published document have been identified and confirmed by the Government as contractor proprietary information which the Government must protect from unauthorized disclosure,” TSA said.
It remains unclear how: 1) cost information, 2) the period of performance under the contract, 3) the Justification & Approval tracking number, 4) the procurement request number and 5) the names and dates of contracting officer and upper-level official approvals meet the criteria of “contractor proprietary information.”
The document provided little else about the endeavor, other than the product codes of equipment provided by QinetiQ. A Google search helped fill in some of those blanks, as QinetiQ revealed through its website that TSA originally awarded the company a $2.8 million contract to develop body scanners and related “threat detection” systems.
Data was similarly purged from a contract given to Leidos Inc., for which TSA justified a no-bid award based on Leidos being the original manufacturer of its Reduced-Sized Explosive Detection System. Leidos, therefore, was deemed best suited to ensure the continued operations of those units, which remain under warranty.
TSA, however, failed to explain in the JOFOC why the continued provision of logistical maintenance services by Leidos warranted blacking out the same type of information that was targeted in the above mentioned QinetiQ contract. Information about five vendors who expressed interest in competing for the contract was likewise redacted.
The names and dates of the contracting officer and higher-level official approvals were additionally blackened without explanation.
Customs and Border Protection
CBP’s redactions were found to be somewhat frequent, containing, in one instance, attempts to shield data from disclosure by citing a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, exemption.
Overall, the agency’s redactions were, document-wise, numerically fewer than the pattern discovered at TSA.
Out of 26 separate JOFOC and related award documents that CBP released since February 2016, 11 either were extensively redacted, partly redacted or were missing cost information.
In one of those cases, CBP had failed to upload the JOFOC document to accompany its Jan. 5, 2017, post, but corrected that omission four days later.
But another JOFOC report containing partly redacted cost information nonetheless disclosed an extensive level of information, and not just the entire contract cost, while simultaneously keeping secret how it would allocate an $8.4 million total award among three categories: Spare Parts, Maintenance and Repair Service, and Operator Training.
The document hid the categorical breakdown of that financial information, citing FOIA exemption (b)4, which enables federal agencies to withhold “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.”
The JOFOC document explicitly identified, however, the number of Mobile Surveillance Capabilities systems that contractor FLIR Integrated Systems Inc., deployed or will deploy across Texas, Arizona and California. It also disclosed the cities and regions where FLIR was preparing to transition the surveillance systems to full governmental control.
Following an extensive examination of TSA and CBP records from the past year, WND then took a close look at the remaining DHS Operational and Support Components that frequently list contracts via FedBizOpps. For the sake of brevity, the following offers a limited sampling of examples from those agencies of notable redactions and omissions.
But first …
The DHS response
In light of what ultimately turned into a discovery of a nearly across-the-board pattern of contracting secrecy, WND turned its focus to DHS headquarters in Washington, D.C. – rather than target component agencies – and asked:
“Is there a Department-level policy – rather than individual DHS agency policies – that allows for this pervasive redacting of cost and other information from contracting documents? If there is such a policy, please explain and cite the legal authority for such policy.”
Despite holding this story an extra day to give DHS additional time to respond, a public affairs specialist speaking on background avoided answering questions about specific examples of this secrecy, citing “limited time to respond.”
The spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied WND’s findings, but only cited the laws and regulations that “DHS contracting personnel follow,” referring to FAR’s authority governing public disclosure of, and access to, documents.
“Contracting officers are also guided by the Freedom of Information Act [or FOIA] (to include specific exemptions to disclosure) and other prohibitions regarding disclosure contained in the FAR when determining whether the justification, or portions of it, are exempt from posting,” the official DHS response also noted.
U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services
USCIS last April awarded – without revealing cost or contracting officials’ names – a noncompetitive contract to Trans Digital Technologies, which had been tasked to maintain the Travel Document Personalization (Printing) System, or TDPS, at an agency production center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The agency supported its justification for the sole-source, no-bid contract to ensure the government’s uninterrupted operation of the system.
TDPS produces “passport-like travel documents” such as the Travel Re-entry Permit, which it issues to “certain lawful permanent residents.” The other, known as a Refugee Travel Document, is “issued to certain refugees.”
USCIS pointed out that it has coordinated efforts with the U.S. State Department to ensure the travel documents printed by the respective institutions “mimic” the other for the purpose of consistency at U.S. and other “ports of entry” inspection facilities.
The JOFOC failed to explain why the exclusion of cost data and the contracting officials’ information was necessary or lawful.
USCIS similarly redacted cost information on the noncompetitive annual renewal of a maintenance contract for its Electronic Immigration System, or ELIS.
ELIS was described as a “user-friendly system created to streamline the application process for immigration benefits. It allows immigration benefit seekers and their legal representatives to create an account and file benefit requests online.”
The JOFOC document accompanying the contract award was purged of information about which contracting officers approved the no-bid, sole-source contract to service EMC Captiva software.
A lesser volume of overall USCIS documents were discovered in terms of redactions and omissions as contrasted to some of its DHS counterparts. Although few records from its earliest FedBizzOpps posts, which began in 2011, contained blacked-out data, a sampling of documents from throughout that period indicates that the agency had increasingly begun to redact such information.
Such redactions even were applied to routine purchases of items such as printer toner cartridges.
Federal Emergency Management Agency
FEMA appears to one of the most transparent of the DHS components specific to noncompetitive contracts, as a very limited number of redactions and omissions were found in a sampling of its JOFOC documents between 2009 and 2017.
A review of 25 of the most recent J&A posts to the database revealed just three documents containing redactions.
Indeed, even in the few instances in which cost data was hidden, the redactions were consistent insofar as the fact that two of the three purchases were specific to proprietary equipment.
Those two reports likewise were accompanied by visible signatures and dates of approval from FEMA contracting agents and officials, who approved the respective purchases of Cisco network switches, hardware and related services, plus the separate acquisition of Verizon telecommunications equipment.
The only recent exception to FEMA overall transparency involved the awarding of a $60 million contract to NFIP Systems & Services related to the National Flood Insurance Program.
Though this particular post offered contract-cost information, it contained a heavily redacted JOFOC document that blacked out the names of all contracting officials involved in addition to entire pages of material.
Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
The FLETC routinely redacts cost information – often along with the names of officials tasked with approving JOFOC requests – no matter if that noncompetitive contract calls for the purchase of protective vests or paper targets.
This has been the case for many years, according to a sampling of contracts awarded as far back as 2009, when FLETC first posted a justification document to the database.
The most recent example involves its Enforcement Operations Division, for whom it hid the cost of “lodging and meals for 39 students” who received “back country training” at Hickory Knob State Park and Resort in South Carolina. The names of all contracting officials were also redacted.
Immigration & Customs Enforcement
The agency’s last J&A for a noncompetitive contract was for data-warehousing services provided by Booz Allen Hamilton, absent cost information and with ICE contracting officials’ names redacted.
The agency’s first J&A posted in 2009 likewise redacted all cost information, but it contained all contracting and competition officials’ names and signatures. An additional sampling of ICE contracting documents published since that time revealed a similar pattern of redactions.
Office of the Chief Procurement Officer
Few examples of redactions and omissions were found in a sampling of this office’s JOFOC documents between 2009 and 2017. Indeed, in the few cases where partly redacted material was found, it typically involved proprietary information related to equipment such as bomb- and hazardous-material detection systems.
One rare but glaring exception was OCPO’s decision to redact the purchase-cost of office furniture on behalf of the DHS Office of Cybersecurity and Communications. Though no reason was given for redacting the cost, such noncompetitive purchases from Federal Prison Industries, known as UNICOR, are expressly allowed under the FAR.
United States Coast Guard
A significant percentage of recent USCG documents specific to no-bid, sole-source contracts were found to have been at least redacted, regardless of whether the agency purchased spare parts of its C-130J transport aircraft or for facility fire-protection services.
Indeed, 19 of USCG’s 25 most recent J&A posts on FedBizOpps contained either redacted JOFOC documents or no documents except a list of federal contracting clauses. In some instance, the agency uploaded reports containing redacted cost information after already separately posting notices that contained the “missing” information.
U.S. Secret Service
The sole DHS entity whose contracting information contained zero redactions was the USSS –which instead avoided disclosing contract costs and other data using other means.
The agency since 2003 had posted many dozens of Special Notices declaring its intentions to award sole-source contracts using the “other than full and open competition” process, typically absent cost information.
All federal agencies, however – the USSS included – must make their justifications for such noncompetitive contracts available to the public, typically within 30 days of the contract.
The agency however, has only posted a total of five total J&A notices to FedBizOpps, limited to the period between 2009 and 2013.
Just three of those notices were accompanied by JOFOC documents, each which included cost information while devoid of names, signatures and dates of contracting-officer approvals.
FAR Subpart 6.305, “Availability of the justification,” mandates that “The justifications shall be made publicly available at the Government Point of Entry,” or GPE.
The sole GPE, FAR explicitly says, is FedBizOpps.
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