- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2014

Iris Cooper, a top government procurement officer, said she was a big fan of scouring would-be contractors’ past performance to see if they could do the job. But that’s not what happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs while she ran its office of acquisition operations, where investigators say she steered about $15 million to a company with no track record that employed two of her friends.

It’s the latest contracting scandal to raise questions about how well the VA vets its contractors, who collect billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money each year.

In one scandal, a VA medical center project was ensnared in delays after contracting officials shrugged off an FBI warning that the project manager was under investigation for embezzlement. Last year, meanwhile, a Maryland woman was sentenced to prison for using bogus shell companies to win VA contracts, but not delivering the work.

Each of the cases has one thing in common: the failure by VA to vet “past performance” information that would have raised clear red flags about lack of experience.

“An agency can easily search for all prior contracts awarded to a particular company,” said Robert Burton, former acting administrator for the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, who was not discussing any particular case. “Most agencies simply need to place more importance on assessing contractor responsibility prior to contract award.”

Ms. Cooper, who has since moved from VA to the Treasury Department, underscored the need to vet past performance in remarks at the Federal Acquisition Institute.

“Past performance is a good indicator of future performance,” Ms. Cooper said. “Reliable past performance information supports source selections. I have used it successfully in major source selections, and it is absolutely critical for us to consider that when we do competitive awards. Even in a single source award, it is critical information to have.”

The veteran contracting official went on to say that like anyone who uses a service such as Angie’s List to search for a good plumber, the government officials “have that responsibility.”

Last week, the VA's inspector general's office disclosed that Ms. Cooper steered millions of dollars in contracts to a contractor called Tridec Industries — a company that had no experience but two executives who knew Ms. Cooper personally.

Made public after an open-records request by The Washington Times, the inspector general’s report found that VA officials wrongly gave Tridec credit for working on a contract that the company never held.

Ms. Cooper had left the VA by the time the inspector general's office finished its investigation. Because she was gone, the watchdog office recommended taking no action against her. A Treasury spokesman told The Times on Monday that the report would not affect Ms. Cooper’s current job standing.

But one veterans group wants her fired from the federal government.

“This says to VA employees that there is a way out and around an investigation. You can simply move from one federal agency to another,” said Dan Caldwell, legislative director for the Concerned Veterans of America.

Ms. Cooper disputed the inspector general’s findings: “The report is biased, misleading and completely disregards a number of critical facts, including that Ms. Cooper recused herself from the VOA contracting process,” attorney David Schertler said in a statement.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs requested that the Treasury’s inspector general investigate her hiring.

VA officials have repeatedly declined to comment on the scandal.

While officials sort out the contract mess, VA officials also face questions about why its contracting office did not catch clear inconsistencies that the inspector general's office uncovered during its probe.

VA contract files, for instance, said Tridec worked on a Department of Transportation contract, but public records showed the company had been incorporated for only weeks at the time VA officials were discussing the hiring in 2009.

That’s the sort of red flag that should alert contracting officials to problems in the acquisition process.

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