- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2010

The executive in charge of the U.S. Postal Service’s $13 billion supply-management operation has acknowledged “cracks in the system,” saying more than 30 percent of the agency’s contracting-officer positions remained unfilled.

The statements by Susan Brownell, vice president of supply management, were made earlier this year in a previously undisclosed interview with the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, which was looking into the award of no-bid contracts by a former top postal executive to his former business associates.

The inspector general’s investigation, which ended this summer, found that several of the contracts awarded by the Postal Service’s former top marketing officer violated postal policies and procedures. The former official, Robert Bernstock, was not charged with any wrongdoing and has resigned.

Speaking about a recent management review that found flaws in the handling of sole-source contracts, Ms. Brownell stated that “contracting officers are overloaded, and as a result, some things get ‘short shrift,’ ” investigators later wrote in a 10-page summary of their March 10 interview with Ms. Brownell.

“Brownell said over 30 percent of their positions are not filled, and there are cracks in the system.”

The Washington Times obtained a copy of the interview memo through the Freedom of Information Act.

Postal officials declined to address questions about staff shortages, but noted that sole-source contracting policies have been strengthened this year.

Under beefed-up contracting rules, postal officials are supposed to “avoid a professional conflict of interest or the appearance of a potential conflict when considering sole-source contracts.”

Postmaster General John E. Potter “took immediate action to tighten up that portion of existing policy that addressed sole-source contracting” following the inspector general’s report, postal spokeswoman Joanne Veto said.

Under the changes, no postal manager can approve a no-bid contract for professional, technical and consulting valued at $1 million or more. Such requests now must be reviewed by Ms. Brownell.

Ms. Veto said the Postal Service is not commenting on individual statements made by executives to the inspector general’s office during its investigation.

“It would not be appropriate for the Postal Service to comment on statements out of context or without having personal knowledge of or participation,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Times. “It also should be noted that the comments you forwarded demonstrate executives answering questions to the best of their knowledge and within their respective roles.”

During her interview, Ms. Brownell also was asked if the supply-management division had a responsibility to look for conflicts of interest when handling contracts.

Ms. Brownell replied, ” ‘No’ they don’t have a responsibility to question a manager requesting a contract about conflicts of interest,” investigators later wrote. “She said she has built a client/customer relationship with the business units and supply management, and her staff relies on the honesty and judgment of the requester.”

She added, however, that if contracting officers suspect a conflict of interest, they can ask for a review from the Postal Service’s law department.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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