This group could make — or break — FOIA reform

A proposed advisory committee to modernize how agencies comply with the Freedom of Information Act could herald a major improvement in relations between government agencies and the researchers, journalists and others who seek documents from them, a privacy advocate says.

If the committee is poorly composed or led by agencies like the Justice Department that have typically advocated more latitude for agencies to deny records requests, however, it could prove little use, said Ginger McCall, federal policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency.

“At the very least it would do no harm, and it has the potential to do great good depending on the composition,” McCall said. “I’d want it to include people who are knowledgeable about FOIA and passionate and willing to take agencies to task. If it’s stacked with people who are very friendly with agencies and more concerned about maintaining their relationship with agencies, then that would not be good.”

Ideally the committee should include groups from outside government that have deep experience both requesting documents under FOIA and litigating over documents the government refuses to release, she said.

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Navy contractor from Georgia sentenced in $18 million scheme

The founder of a U.S. Navy contractor from Georgia must serve three years in prison for his part in a kickback scheme that cost the Navy $18 million, a federal judge in Rhode Island ordered Wednesday.

Anjan Dutta-Gupta, of Roswell, Ga., founder of Advanced Solutions for Tomorrow, or ASFT, is the fourth person to be sentenced in a federal probe into a 15-year scheme led by former civilian Navy employee Ralph M. Mariano. Dutta-Gupta pleaded guilty in 2011 to bribery and was not sentenced until Wednesday while he cooperated with the investigation.

The sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi matched the recommendation of both prosecutors and the defense, who said Dutta-Gupta’s extensive cooperation almost immediately after he was charged meant he should be shown some leniency. Otherwise, he could have faced as much as 15 years in prison.

Mariano worked for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., and was most recently based at the Navy Yard in Washington. He had the power to approve payments on Navy contracts and used it to sign off on false invoices submitted by ASFT and subcontractors, which would then funnel kickbacks to Mariano and others. ASFT, which also had offices in Middletown, R.I., went under soon after the charges were brought.

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GSA updates strategic sourcing tool for office supplies

The General Services Administration in late November published a draft update of its seven-year-old strategic sourcing initiative aimed at reducing the costs of agency office supply purchasing.

The new statement of work titled “Office Supply Third Generation,” or OS3, is “the agency’s latest effort to cut costs and increase efficiencies by buying everyday supplies like pens, paper and printing items from a list of vendors with negotiated low prices,” GSA said in a release. It is expected to save $65 million a year in reduced administrative costs and $90 million through lowered prices, with 76 percent of purchasing contracts going to small businesses. Since 2006, the program has saved agencies $350 million, according to GSA.

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EPA proposes new guidelines for greener federal purchases

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing draft guidelines that will help the federal government buy greener and safer products.  In response to broad stakeholder interest, EPA is seeking public input on these draft guidelines and a potential approach to assessing non-governmental environmental standards and ecolabels already in the marketplace.

“As the largest purchaser in the world, the U.S. government is working to reduce its environmental footprint,” said Jim Jones, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “The government buys everything from furniture to lighting to cleaning products. These guidelines will make it easier for federal purchasers to meet the existing goal of 95 percent sustainable purchases while spurring consumers and the private sector to use and demand safer and greener products.”

The draft guidelines were developed by EPA, the General Services Administration, and others following several listening sessions with a wide range of stakeholders on how the federal government can be more sustainable in its purchasing and how it can best meet the numerous Federal requirements for the procurement of sustainable and environmentally preferable products and services. The draft guidelines were designed to assist federal purchasing decision makers in more consistently using existing non-governmental product environmental performance standards and ecolabels.

The draft guidelines address key characteristics of environmental standards and ecolabels, including the credibility of the development process and the effectiveness of the criteria for environmental performance. The draft guidelines were developed to be flexible enough to be applied to standards and ecolabels in a broad range of product categories.

For more information on the draft guidelines visit:

For more information, read the Federal Register Prepublication Notice (PDF) and the EPA’s press release.

DoD enacts rule on excluding contractors based on supply chain risk

The Defense Department may now officially exclude contractors or subcontractors from receiving information technology contracts based on the risk their supply chain poses to national security systems.

The authority comes from earlier national defense authorization bills and it expires in September 2018. In an interim rule published Nov. 18 in the Federal Register, DoD says the authority applies to the acquisition of any IT product or service, including commercial items, so long as the contractor in question operates a supply chain that poses a significant risk to a particular national security system.

Although the clause permitting the DoD to exclude contractors will now be a part of all defense IT contractors, the interim rule notes that it can apply only to national security systems, and then only to items “the loss of integrity of which could result in a supply chain risk to the entire system.”

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VA needs better oversight of major construction projects, IG tells House panel

The Veterans Affairs Department used inaccurate milestones for several of its health care center construction projects and hasn’t properly tracked project costs, said Linda Halliday, VA assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations before a Nov. 20 House panel.

“VA needs better oversight, improved capital planning and stricter asset management to gain assurance that it can address construction and lease challenges more effectively,” Halliday said at the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

As of August 2013, only four of seven leases that came under IG review for an Oct. 22 report (.pdf), had been awarded and no HCCs had been built, despite VA’s target completion date of June 2012, Halliday said in prepared testimony.

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Contractors concerned about legislation that would centralize suspension process

Contractor advocates are concerned that new legislation moving through the House could result in a more rigid suspension and debarment process.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has approved a bill known as the SUSPEND (Stop Unworthy Spending) Act, which proposes a centralized board to manage all agency suspension and debarment issues.

The idea is to create a more consistent system — though some agencies would be able to use waivers to maintain their own suspension and debarment processes.

There were 836 discretionary suspensions and 1,722 discretionary debarments in fiscal 2012, according to data provided by the committee. Both figures represent a decrease from the previous year.

A committee spokesman said in past years some agencies have reported very few suspension or debarment actions — despite significant contract spending.

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DoD finalizes unclassified information protection rule for contractors

A proposed rule more than two years in the making regarding contractor protections of unclassified defense information and intrusion reporting became final last Monday (Nov. 18, 2014) following publication of a final rule in the Federal Register.

The rule is smaller in scope than the proposed rule the Defense Department put forth in June 2011; it proposed controls for any data tagged with a “for official use only” or similar marker.  The final rule only pertains to “unclassified controlled technical information,” which means technical data or computer software (as defined in the Defense Acquisition Regulation Supplement, section 252.227-7013).

It requires contractors and subcontractors storing or transiting that data to implement 51 security controls from the National Institute of Standards and Technology catalog, Special Publication 800-53 (.pdf), or provide a justification for the use of alternative controls or a case for the control’s inapplicability.

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Little guys complain they’re tossed aside as big contractors absorb cuts

Computer Frontiers Inc.’s owner thought she’d gotten a break when Stanley Inc. agreed to team up with the small technology company in the U.S. government market.

Instead, Barbara Keating says she feels betrayed. Canada’s CGI Group Inc., after buying Stanley, touted the relationship to win orders in the past three years under a State Department visa-processing contract valued at as much as $2.8 billion. Then it mostly cut the small business out of the deal, sending some work overseas, according to a federal lawsuit.

“We were a big part of winning the contract,” Keating said in a phone interview. “We definitely thought we’d all grow together because of this relationship. But that obviously didn’t happen.”

Large companies are increasingly reducing subcontractors’ roles to help cope with $1.2 trillion in automatic federal spending cuts that began in March, according to attorneys and contracting specialists. Those grievances have reached U.S. officials, who want to know when vendors won’t be working with small businesses that helped them get the work.

“We went to many different parts of the country and met with companies, and in almost every city there was someone that said this was an issue,” said Ken Dodds, director of policy, planning and liaison for the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 demanded that the government start requiring contractors that operate under a subcontracting plan to notify agencies when they’re not using small businesses that were part of their bids, Dodds said. A regulation to implement that part of the law hasn’t been approved.

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Bill targets abuse in VA contracting

Students who become injured while cadets at U.S. service academy prep schools will no longer be able to claim vet status or file for disability compensation with the VA under legislation filed this week by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Rep. Daryl Issa, R-Calif.

The bipartisan bill comes after lawmakers in June took testimony from a Virginia businessman who got a VA disability on the basis of a 1984 football injury at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School; the compensation meant his company would be considered for contract set-asides for businesses owned by disabled vets.

The bill filed this week by Duckworth and Issa, who chairs the committee that grilled business owner Braulio Castillo in June, would no longer grant veteran’s status to men or women whose only connection to the military is attending a service academy high school. The bill would define “veteran” to exclude such individuals and prevent them from exploiting the system to secure contracting preferences.

“The Support Earned Recognition for Veterans (SERV) Act [is] a bipartisan bill to eliminate abuses in the veterans benefit system and ensure that only individuals who have actually served in the military can qualify to receive government contracting preferences and similar benefits,” the two said in a joint statement released Nov. 14.

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