Pubdate: Thu, 23 Aug 2007
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Robert O'Harrow Jr., Washington Post


Feds Find Ways To Avoid Competitive Bidding

Washington - Under pressure from the White House and Congress to
deliver a long-delayed plan last year, officials at the Department of
Homeland Security's counter-narcotics office took a shortcut that has
become common at federal agencies: They hired help through a no-bid

And the firm they hired showed them how to do it.

Scott Chronister, a senior official in the Office of Counternarcotics
Enforcement, reached out to a former colleague at a private consulting
firm for advice. The consultant suggested that Chronister's office
could avoid competition and get the work done quickly under an
arrangement in which the firm "approached the government with a
'unique and innovative concept,' " documents and interviews show.

A contract worth up to $579,000 was awarded to the consultant's firm
in September.

Though small by government standards, the counter-narcotics contract
illustrates the government's steady move away from relying on
competition to secure the best deals for products and services.

A recent congressional report estimated that federal spending on
contracts awarded without open competition has tripled, to $207
billion, since 2000, with a $60 billion increase last year alone. The
category includes deals in which officials take advantage of
provisions allowing them to sidestep competition for speed and
convenience and cases where the government sharply limits the number
of bidders or expands work under open-ended contracts.

Government auditors say the result often is higher prices for
taxpayers and an undue reliance on a limited number of

"The rapid growth in no-bid and limited-competition contracts has made
full and open competition the exception, not the rule," according to
the report, by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles.

Keith Ashdown, chief investigator at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a
nonpartisan watchdog group, said that in many cases, officials are
simply choosing favored contractors as part of a club mentality.

"Contracting officials are throwing out decades of work to develop
fair and sensible rules to promote competition," Ashdown said.
"Government officials are skirting the rules in favor of expediency or
their favored contractors."

In the case of the counter-narcotics office, a spokesman for Homeland
Security said it is not unusual for a contractor to tell agency
officials how to arrange no-bid contracts because contractors
sometimes know federal procurement regulations better than federal
program managers.

Chronister and the former colleague, consultant Ron Simeone, declined
to be interviewed for this article.

The director of the counter-narcotics office, Uttam Dhillon, defended
his office's decision to use the consultants, saying ethics officials
at the Department of Homeland Security had been informed of the
arrangements and approved them, as long as Chronister did not
supervise his former colleagues.

Contracting officials at the department also determined that the
no-bid arrangement was OK because Simeone and his subcontractor were
uniquely qualified to do the work, in part because they intended to
replicate some work they had done for the White House drug office, he

Dhillon said he was comfortable hiring Simeone after Chronister and
another office official described the consultant as a
counter-narcotics expert. He said the firm performed well.
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