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Thursday
Apr112013

A government debarment professional’s response to the SUSPEND Act critique

As a government suspension, debarment and procurement fraud professional, I often worry that we spend so much time doing our jobs in this resource-constrained environment that we cede opportunities to shape the messaging and public impression of our work by not writing or engaging in outreach enough. 

If the FCPA Blog's readers were to research suspension, debarment or procurement fraud they would find the vast majority of secondary source writings by private practitioners and service providers to contractors. The government-side voice is, by comparison, absent. This needs to change, and the recent discussion draft bill entitled “Stop Unworthy Spending (SUSPEND) Act” offered by Representative Issa of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee offers a prime opportunity to do that.

Last week on this blog, Dean Jessica Tillipman and Ms. Lauren Youngman posted a three-part series critiquing the SUSPEND Act and offered their views for reforming the suspension and debarment system (see Part I, Part II, and Part III). The critique is interesting and well-written, and suggestions for how to improve operations are always worthy of consideration. However, the suggestions for process reform in this critique and the reasons cited for them cause some of us on the government side -- especially those of us practicing within high functioning programs -- concern. 

The critique calls for a strengthening of the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee because the Committee has “demonstrated its ability to achieve significant system-wide improvements.”  I am a member of the ISDC.  It is a vitally important coordinating body for cross-agency issues. However, I am not sure we can accurately credit the ISDC alone for achieving system-wide improvements. 

The ISDC certainly had a role, but the system-wide improvements of the last two years also coincide with program reviews by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Defense Inspector General, numerous Congressional hearings, legislative changes, and many other expressions of interest by regulatory and oversight bodies. The Office of Management and Budget also issued a call for federal agencies to change the way suspension and debarment programs are structured. I am unclear what “strengthening the role” of the ISDC would accomplish. 

Dean Tillipman and Ms. Youngman also call for a focus on “comprehensive fraud remedies programs,” a call that many in the Department of Defense community applaud and echo. In fact, the strong linkage between the fraud remedies program and the suspension and debarment apparatus within the Air Force caused us to issue a record number of suspensions, debarments and proposed debarments last year. 

Outsourcing the suspension and debarment function to a board runs the risk that civilian agencies might abandon the suspension and debarment function entirely as the function is not necessarily as strongly linked with a fraud remedies program as it is within the Department of Defense. Further, by vesting the SUSPEND Act-enhanced Interagency Committee on Debarment and Suspension chair role in a civilian board removed from agency operations, it is at least possible that the Department of Defense may be marginalized in the periodic meetings and in the lead-agency coordination process. 

This might have an unintended and potentially damaging consequence of decoupling the Department of Defense’ suspension/debarment function from the associated procurement fraud remedies program.

In summary, the SUSPEND Act is an important discussion draft for potential legislation. It has met its stated purpose of getting the community talking about these important issues. This government practitioner looks forward to being an active participant in this robust discussion.

__________

David Robbins is the Assistant Deputy General Counsel (Contractor Responsibility), Department of the Air Force. The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee.

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