Suspension, debarment numbers don't tell full story

Thursday - 6/14/2012, 9:32pm EDT

Rob Burton, Venable Law Firm

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Audio from ACT-IAC suspension and debarment panel

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Despite mounting pressure from certain quarters of the government and Congress to more aggressively suspend and debar irresponsible contractors, some agencies only rarely, if ever, do so.

"There's no question there's more of an interest now in suspension and debarment," said Rob Burton, the former deputy and acting administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator, now a partner at Venable law firm.

In an interview on Industry Chatter as part of the Federal News Radio week-long special report, Inside the World's Biggest Buyer, Burton said pressure began building a few years ago to more stringently pursue suspension and debarment for poorly performing contractors.

However, not all agencies are on board.

The Health and Human Services Department has not used suspension and debarment at all, Burton said, "which is hard to believe when you look at the amount of dollars that HHS spends" on contracting.

While the Small Business Administration often confronts companies that improperly represent themselves as "small," the agency has pursued only one case of suspension and debarment, Burton said.

"So I can understand why certain folks in the government feel like it's not being used as effectively or as often as maybe it should be. I think that's a fair point."

However, recent trends across the government point to more widespread use of suspension and debarment.

The Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee, in its 2010 report, listed 612 suspensions in fiscal 2010, up nearly 200 from the previous year. Debarments increased from 1,501 in fiscal 2009 to 1,651 in 2010.

But Burton said a debate has raged in government for years over how to count instances of suspension.

If an agency finds misconduct among, for example, 20 employees at a particular contractor, some agencies may count that as 20 individual cases of suspension, whereas others may list it as only a single suspension, Burton said.

"So you need to make sure that apples and apples are being compared," he added.

Burton said, though, there's little doubt that agencies are more aggressively applying such practices.

"The exact numbers we can debate, but the trend is upward, no question about that," he said.

"Industry Chatter" also featured an audio excerpt from a panel discussion at a March American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council.

Former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator Dan Gordon and the General Services Administration's suspension and debarment official Joseph Neurauter discuss "everything you want to know but are afraid to ask" about suspensions and debarment.

This story is part of the Federal News Radio week-long special report, Inside the World's Biggest Buyer.

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