- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2014

Army contracting apparently is like the schools at Lake Wobegon — everybody is above average.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fell victim to the biggest bid-rigging scandal in the history of federal procurement in 2011 — the same year the Army’s cadre of more than 5,600 contracting officers received unusually stellar job ratings.

Out of 5,670 contracting officers, just two received an unsatisfactory performance rating in fiscal 2011, while more than 60 percent of the Army’s procurement workers were given the highest rating of “role models,” according to a previously undisclosed 2013 Army Audit Agency review that found “there are few, if any, consequences for unfavorable contracting practices.”

Even personnel working in “high-risk” offices often managed to score above-average job-performance ratings, according to the report, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, which officials said signaled widespread problems of job ratings in government reviews.

“It’s not just contracting officers,” Harry Hallock, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for procurement, acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Times on Thursday.

“It’s frankly across the Army, across DOD, across the federal government. I think over time we have had an issue with performance appraisals matching performance,” he said.

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Mr. Hallock, who was appointed to the job less than a year ago, said the Army is working to bring job ratings more in line with actual performance, but he also said contracting officers aren’t always primarily responsible for procurement problems.

“Oftentimes, people are trying to do the right thing and things go wrong, and it’s not really necessarily performance or behavior. It’s oftentimes bad policy or bad guidance.”

Still, the Army has had its share of contracting woes in recent years, making it hard to fathom why so few contracting officials merited a low rating.

In 2011, the U.S. attorney in Washington announced charges against a program manager and director as part of a $20 million kickback contracting scheme that went undetected for years.

Prosecutors only learned of the fraud when a contracting executive-turned-government informant tipped them off. In the scheme, an Army Corps contracting official was essentially incorporating the costs of bribes into contracts, telling contractors to inflate overhead and then kick back the proceeds.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has filed multiple civil-fraud complaints in recent years against wartime contractor KBR over its work on the Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP III), a massive contract to provide logistics support to overseas forces.

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“It’s very, very hard to believe there were only two low performers among 5,600,” said David Van Slyke, a professor at Syracuse University and co-author of Complex Contracting, which investigates the Coast Guard’s multibillion-dollar Deepwater modernization program.

He said correct job ratings are critical to making sure the government is getting value for its money.

“This is where you need strong performance evaluations to make sure you’re both attracting the best talent and keeping the best talent,” he said. “We can’t afford not to have good people in those roles when we’re spending more than a half-trillion dollars a year buying products and services.”

Indeed, the Army auditors said with so many contracting offers rated so highly, it’s hard to tell who the true high performers are in contracting offices.

Nicholas Armstrong, a research fellow for the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, said Army contracting officers face unique challenges that they can’t solve on their own. Unlike other military branches that rely more on large weapons systems, the Army buys a large amount of logistics support.

Contracting officers, who remain in the U.S., rely on contracting representatives in deployed units to act as their eyes and ears to make sure the work is getting completed. But for many of those representatives, the job is in addition to their core duties, and they have little training.

Turnover is also an issue. After a few years, Mr. Armstrong said contracting officer representatives may not even know what the original intent of the contract was in the first place.

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

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