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Koprince Law LLC

Ahh, fall. A time for football, hay rides, and returning to campus. Being in a college town, we are always reminded that students are back on campus due to the increased traffic, the homecoming parade, and the increased buzz (no pun intended) around the town. The onset of fall sometimes dredges up unwanted memories about turning in term papers and meeting all the inane requirements insisted upon by the professor.

A recent GAO opinion also brought me back to my college days. Specifically, what happens when the government (kind of like a college professor) sets a requirement for a certain type of file format for a solicitation, but the offeror submits a proposal in a different file format?  A recent GAO opinion answers that question in the contractor’s favor–although GAO’s ruling isn’t a blanket permission slip for contractors to ignore file format requirements.

In McCann-Erickson USA, Inc., B-414787 (Comp. Gen. Sept. 18, 2017), McCann-Erickson USA, Inc. had submitted a proposal to provide advertising services to the Army on an IDIQ basis for a potential 10-year contract worth up to $4 billion. The Army would evaluate proposals “on a best-value basis, considering cost/price, along with several non-cost/price evaluation criteria.”

The solicitation set up a two-phase evaluation process. Phase one would be based on written proposals while phase two would involve an oral presentation for all proposals that were deemed acceptable. Phase one involved “a substantive evaluation of written proposals considering cost/price and the non-cost/price evaluation factors with a focus on the adequacy of the offerors’ response–and the feasibility of their approach–to fulfilling the requirements of the RFP.” But instead of following the two-phase review process, the Army conducted what it termed a “compliance review” of proposals, consisting of reviewing and eliminating proposals based on “informational deficiencies” in what GAO described as a “superficial, perfunctory review of the ME proposal to identify instances where ME allegedly did not fully comply with the instructions for proposal preparation.”

What were these “information deficiencies” identified by GAO?  The wrong file format was one of them. The Army rejected ME’s proposal, in part, “for submitting its cost/price proposal as a portable document file (pdf) rather than as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.” Per the GAO, “[t]he record shows that the agency did not substantively evaluate the ME cost/price proposal, choosing not to calculate the firm’s total evaluated cost/price; performing no meaningful cost realism evaluation; and not evaluating the proposal for balance, fairness or reasonableness, as specifically contemplated by the solicitation’s cost/price evaluation factor. The agency also did not afford ME an opportunity to submit its cost proposal as a Microsoft Excel file.”

GAO rejected the Army’s interpretation of its submission requirements because

the solicitation’s evaluation criteria did not place offerors on notice that the agency simply would reject proposals without first performing a substantive evaluation. In addition, the record does not establish why the Army is unable to evaluate ME’s cost/price proposal using the pdf version of the proposal that it submitted, as opposed to a Microsoft Excel version of the cost/price proposal. Although a Microsoft Excel version of the proposal would include the underlying formulae used to arrive at the cost/price proposed by ME, the agency has not explained how the lack of such information would necessarily lead to its inability to evaluate the MS cost/price proposal.

In addition, GAO held that allowing ME to submit an Excel version of its cost/price proposal would be prudent, as long as no changes were made in the pricing, because this would amount to a mere clarification of the proposal. In the end, GAO sustained the protest and advised the Army to reevaluate ME’s proposal and awarded costs to ME.

It’s important to note that the GAO’s decision was based on the specific circumstances of the case. GAO did not hold that it is always okay for an offeror to submit its proposal in the wrong electronic file format. In fact, in a case decided a few years back, the GAO reached the opposite conclusion–holding that an offeror was properly excluded from award when it submitted its proposal in PDF instead of Excel.  The difference?  In the prior case, the agency argued that it needed to manipulate offerors’ cost data to complete the price evaluation, and the GAO agreed that doing so would be “unduly burdensome” without an Excel file.

Perhaps a college student may come across this blog after turning in a paper in the wrong format and be able to argue that, if it’s good enough for the GAO, it should be good enough for you, professor. Regardless, this decision is noteworthy because it points to limits on an agency’s discretion in rejecting a proposal based on the file format of the submission.


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Koprince Law LLC

Women-owned small businesses are increasingly seeking to become certified through one of four SBA-approved third-party WOSB certifiers.  But which third-party certifier to use?

There doesn’t seem to be any single resource summarizing the basics about the four SBA-approved certifiers, such as the application fees, processing time, and documents required by each certifier.  So here it is–a roundup of the key information for three of the four SBA-approved WOSB certifiers (as you’ll see, we’ve had some problems reaching the fourth).

First things first: why should WOSBs and EDWOSBs consider third-party certification?

As part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress eliminated self-certification for WOSB set-asides and sole sources. Despite the statutory change, the SBA continues to insist that WOSB remains a viable option indefinitely while the SBA figures out how to address Congress’s action. But can the SBA legally allow WOSBs to do the very thing that Congress specifically prohibited? I certainly have my doubts, particularly since the SBA has never explained the legal rationale for its position.

For WOSBs and EDWOSBs, third-party certification (which is still allowed following the 2015 NDAA) may be the safest option. There are currently four entities that the SBA has approved as third-party certifiers: the National Women’s Business Owners Corporation (NWBOC), Women’s Enterprise National Council (WBENC), the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce (USWCC), and the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (EPHCC). This post summarizes the cost, time, and application fees associated with three of those organizations.

After researching and speaking with three of the WOSB certifiers, we found that all three require a written application, and that the required supporting documents are largely similar. Anticipated processing times vary (and probably should be taken with a grain of salt, as no certifier wants to admit that it is slow). For all certifiers, the anticipated processing time from application to certification begins when a completed application is received. This point was reiterated time and again at each of the three certifiers we were able to reach. To facilitate the prompt consideration of an application, prospective WOSBs should make sure to submit all of the required documents and information the first time around; and to respond promptly if additional information is requested during the application process.

National Women’s Business Owners Corporation (NWBOC)

The NWBOC offers third-party certification to both WOSBs and EDWOSBs. All application information and documents needed are listed in the NWBOC’s application form, which is available on its website. The NWBOC also offer the option for potential WOSBs and EDWOSBs to purchase a tailored application kit to guide applicants through the process of applying. The fee to apply for certification is $400 at a minimum, and an applicant may be charged more if requests for more information are not met in a timely fashion. According to the NWBOC, the current processing time for certification is between 6-8 weeks. A completed application and all required documents must be mailed into the NWBOC before processing will begin.

Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC)

WOSB Certification through WBENC is free and very quick—for WBENC members. For companies that are already members of WBENC—especially those that are already certified as Women’s Business Enterprises (WBEs)—this option could be both the quickest and cheapest. For companies that are not members of WBENC, the cost for WBENC Membership starts at $350, and can go up based off of the applying company’s revenue. And although WBENC says that WOSB certification for its members is “virtually instant,” the process of becoming a member can take up to 90 days—which means that if a non-member elects to use WBENC, the application process could take 90 days or more. WBENC offers a WOSB application checklist on its website to aid in document production, as well as a guide to completing the application. WBENC suggests that the application be completed after document production, as it is done online and has a 90-day deadline from start to finish—and once it is submitted, no changes can be made. All documents required for the application, including the fee, must be provided before the application will be processed. WBENC only offers WOSB certification, not EDWOSB certification. Prospective EDWOSBs will need to look at another option.

The U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce

The USWCC offers WOSB and EDWOSB third-party certification, to both its members and non-members. According to the USCWCC’s website, certification takes between 15-30 days and costs $275 for Business and Supplier members and $350 for non-members. A possible bonus (or deterrent, for some) is that the entire application and document submission is completed online. The USWCC offers both a certification and document checklist and sample application on its website to aid applicants in document production and prepare them to answer the questions on the application, but it cannot be submitted in lieu of the online form. The USWCC also requires the application be completed in one sitting—it cannot be completed partially and saved to be completed later. This means that the applicant should be completely ready to apply prior to starting, or else risk getting almost done and being interrupted and then having to restart from the beginning.

The El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (EPHCC)

Unfortunately, we found that the EPHCC was difficult to contact, and we were unable to speak with any staffer regarding the EPHCC’s WOSB certification process. If we obtain information about the EPHCC, we will update this post to include it.

These four entities are currently the only ones approved by the SBA for third-party WOSB/EDWOB certification. While the SBA remains adamant that third-party certification remains viable indefinitely, women-owned businesses should decide for themselves whether they are comfortable with the SBA’s position. For women-owned businesses that decide to play it safe while the SBA addresses the 2015 NDAA, third-party certification is the way to go.

Molly Schemm of Koprince Law LLC was the primary author of this post.  


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Koprince Law LLC

A self-certified woman-owned small business was ineligible for a WOSB set-aside contract because the woman owner’s husband held the company’s highest officer position and appeared to manage its day-to-day operations.

A recent SBA Office of Hearings and Appeals decision highlights the importance of ensuring that a woman be responsible for managing the day-to-day business of a WOSB–and that the woman’s role be reflected both in the corporate paperwork and in practice.

OHA’s decision in Yard Masters, Inc., SBA No. WOSB-109 (2017) involved an Army solicitation for grounds maintenance services.  The solicitation was issued as a WOSB set-aside under NAICS code 561730 (Landscaping Services), with a corresponding $7 million size standard.

After evaluating competitive proposals, the Army awarded the contract to Yard Masters, Inc.  A competitor then filed a WOSB protest, alleging that Yard Masters was ineligible.  The protester contended that a man, Bryce Wade, was Yard Masters’ majority owner and President until recently and that he still exercised control over the company.

In response to the protest, Yard Masters admitted that Bryce Wade had previously been the majority owner, but that he had recently sold stock to his wife, Sally Wade, making her the 51% owner.  Yard Masters also produced Sally Wade’s resume and meeting minutes, showing that Sally Wade was the Chief Executive Officer.

The SBA Area Office examined Yard Masters’ bylaws, and determined that the bylaws “do not create a CEO position” or assign any duties to the CEO.  Instead, the bylaws identified the President (a position held by Bryce Wade) as the “chief executive and administrative officer of the corporation.”  The SBA Area Office also noted that “Bryce Wade signed [Yard Masters’] proposal and its contract documents for the instant procurement,” as well as the company’s tax returns.  The tax returns “identify Bryce, and not Sally, Wade as a compensated officer.”

The SBA Area Office found that Sally Wade did not control Yard Masters, and issued a determination finding the company ineligible for the Army WOSB set-aside contract.

Yard Masters appealed to OHA.  Yard Masters argued, in part, that the corporation’s meeting minutes made clear that Sally Wade had ultimate direction and control of the company.

Yard Masters “argues that Sally Wade is its CEO,” OHA wrote.  “The problem is that the Board did not formally create a position of CEO.”  OHA continued, “[t]he Bylaws were never changed to add the position of CEO.  The Bylaws clearly state that the President is the corporation’s ‘chief administrative and executive officer.’  Bryce Wade holds that position.”  OHA concluded that Yard Masters’ “highest officer position is President, and Bryce Wade, not Sally Wade, holds it.”

OHA also noted that “all actions taken on [Yard Masters’] behalf were taken by Bryce Wade.”  Even after Sally Wade “supposedly had taken control” of the company, “Bryce Wade signed [Yard Masters’] offer” and was listed as the point of contact.  And incredibly, after the WOSB protest was filed, “t was Bryce Wade, not Ms. Sally Wade, who communicated with SBA on [Yard Masters’] behalf.”

OHA denied the appeal and upheld the SBA Area Office’s decision.

The Yard Masters case offers at least three important lessons for WOSBs.

First, corporate paperwork matters.  I can’t count how many times, in my practice, I’ve seen a situation like Yard Masters’, where a company officer is using a title that isn’t established in the governing documents.  In order for a woman to hold the highest officer position in the company, the governing documents need to establish that her role is, in fact, the highest.  Even small, family-owned companies like Yard Masters need to ensure that their corporate documents are up to snuff.

Second, perception matters.  Although there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with a man signing contracts and other documents on behalf of a WOSB, it does tend to suggest that the man has outsize influence within the company.  WOSBs ought to be careful about who signs contracts, checks and other corporate documents–as well as who is listed as points of contact in SAM and in proposals.

And third, as a corollary to the previous item, if you’re getting protested for WOSB eligibility, don’t have a man be in charge of communicating with the SBA.  Talk about not sending the right signals.

The SBA is still working in the long-awaited rules that will require all WOSBs to be formally certified.  But in the meantime, Yard Masters is a good reminder self-certified WOSBs need to do their due diligence to ensure that they comply with all WOSB requirements.


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Koprince Law LLC

The woman-owned small business program is in the midst of major changes: from the addition of sole source authority, to lingering questions about what the heck the SBA’s plan is to address the elimination of WOSB self-certification.

I recently joined host “Game Changers” podcast host Michael LeJune of Federal Access for an in-depth discussion of recent WOSB program changes, and where the WOSB program goes from here.  Click here to listen to the podcast, and visit the Game Changers SoundCloud page for more great discussions with government contracting thought leaders.


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Koprince Law LLC

Welcome to 5 Things You Should Know, a new SmallGovCon series aimed at providing foundational information on topics relevant to government contractors.

In the posts that follow, I’ll try to distill complex contracting topics to their very essence. Unsure about what, exactly, a claim or bid protest is? What is the All Small mentor protégé  program? I’ll walk through each of these topics (and others) and explain why they matter.

These posts won’t be a treatise on each topic discussed, but hopefully they’ll help you navigate the complex world of federal contracts.

If there’s a particular topic you’d be interested in learning more about, please send it to me.

In the first post, we’ll tackle the basics of bid protests. Other posts will follow approximately every two weeks.

Enjoy!


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Koprince Law LLC

SDVOSBs and VOSBs are big winners today, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the VA’s “rule of two” is mandatory, and applies to all VA procurements–including GSA Schedule orders.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, No. 14-916 (2016) means that the VA will be required to truly put “Veterans First” in all of its procurement actions–which is what Kingdomware, and many veterans’ advocates, have fought for all along.

History of the Kingdomware Case

As followers of SmallGovCon and the Kingdomware case know, the battle over the VA’s “rule of two” began in 2006, when Congress passed the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006 (the “VA Act”).  The VA Act included a provision requiring the VA to restrict competitions to veteran-owned firms so long as the “rule of two” is satisfied.  The VA Act states, at 38 U.S.C. 8127(d):

(d) Use of Restricted Competition.— Except as provided in subsections (b) and (c), for purposes of meeting the goals under subsection (a), and in accordance with this section, a contracting officer of the Department shall award contracts on the basis of competition restricted to small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans if the contracting officer has a reasonable expectation that two or more small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans will submit offers and that the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.

The two exceptions referenced in the statute (“subsections (b) and (c)”) allow the VA to make sole source awards to veteran-owned companies under certain circumstances.  Nothing in the statute provides an exception for orders off the GSA Schedule, or under any other government-wide acquisition contract.

Despite the absence of a statutory exception for GSA Schedule orders, the VA has long taken the position that it may order off the GSA Schedule without first applying the VA Act’s Rule of Two.

In 2011, the issue first came to a head at the GAO.  In Aldevra, B-405271; B-405524 (Oct. 11, 2011), the GAO sustained an SDVOSB’s bid protest and held that the VA had violated the law by ordering certain supplies through the GSA Schedule without first applying the Rule of Two.  The GAO subsequently sustained many other protests filed by Aldevra and others, including Kingdomware.

But there was one problem: the VA refused to abide by the GAO’s decisions.  GAO bid protest decisions are technically recommendations, and while agencies almost always follow the GAO’s recommendations, they are not legally required to do so.  The VA kept circumventing the Rule of Two notwithstanding the GAO’s decisions.

Finally, Kingdomware took the VA to federal court.  But in November 2012, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims reached a different conclusion than the GAO.  In Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, 106 Fed. Cl. 226 (2012), the Court ruled in favor of the VA.  Relying on the phrase “for purposes of meeting the goals under subsection (a),” the Court determined that the VA Act was “goal setting in nature,” not mandatory.  The Court held that the VA need not follow the “rule of two,” so long as the VA had met its agency-wide goals for SDVOSB and VOSB contracting (which, to the VA’s credit, it had).

Kingdomware appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  In June 2014, a three-member panel upheld the Court of Federal Claims’ decision on a 2-1 vote.  Like the Court of Federal Claims, the Federal Circuit majority held that the VA Act’s “rule of two” was a goal-setting requirement, and that the VA need not apply the “rule of two” so long as its SDVOSB and VOSB goals are satisfied.  In a sharp dissent, Judge Jimmie Reyna noted that the statute uses the mandatory word “shall” and argued that the phrase “for purposes of meeting the goals under subsection (a)” was merely “prefatory language” that explained the general purpose of the statute, but did not vary the statute’s mandatory nature.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Kingdomware’s appeal.  Kingdomware and the Government began filing briefs with the Supreme Court (as did a number of Kingdomware supporters, including yours truly).  But in a surprising twist, in September 2015, the Government abandoned the “goal setting” argument that had prevailed at two lower courts.  The Government conceded that the “rule of two” applies regardless of whether the VA has met its goals–but argued that the statute’s use of the term “contract” excludes GSA Schedule orders (as well as orders under other multiple-award vehicles).

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the morning of February 22, 2016.  At the Court, Kingdomware’s counsel focused primarily on the mandatory nature of the statutory language, while the VA’s counsel primarily made policy arguments, namely, that it would be difficult and cumbersome for the VA to apply the rule of two in every setting.

After February 22, SDVOSBs and VOSBs waited for the Court’s decision.  Now it’s here–and it’s a big, big win.

The Supreme Court’s Kingdomware Decision

The Supreme Court’s opinion, written for an 8-0 unanimous Court by Justice Clarence Thomas, begins by recounting the history of the VA Act, the “rule of two,” and the Kingdomware case itself.  The Court then examines whether it has jurisdiction to consider the case (a technical issue raised earlier in the process), and concludes that it does.

Turning to the merits, the Court gets right to business:

On the merits, we hold that [Section] 8127 is mandatory, not discretionary.  Its text requires the Department to apply the Rule of Two to all contracting determinations and to award contracts to veteran-owned small businesses.  The Act does not allow the Department to evade the Rule of Two on the ground that it has already met its contracting goals or on the ground that the Department has placed an order through the [Federal Supply Schedule].

The Court explains that any issue of statutory construction begins “with the language of the statute.”  If the language is unambiguous, and the “statutory scheme is coherent and consistent,” the Court’s review ends there.

The Court writes that “[Section] 8127 unambiguously requires the Department to use the Rule of Two” before applying other procedures.  The Court points out that the statute includes the word “shall,” and writes "nlike the word ‘may,’ which implies discretion, the word ‘shall’ usually connotes a requirement.” Accordingly, “the Department shall(or must) prefer veteran-owned small businesses when the Rule of Two is satisfied."

The Court then writes that other portions of the statute confirm that Congress “used the word ‘shall’ . . . as a command.”  Therefore, “before contracting with a non-veteran owned business, the Department must first apply the Rule of Two.”

Next, the Court turns to the Government’s shifting rationales for evading the “rule of two.”  The Court notes that the Government changed its theory of the case late in the process, but nonetheless addresses the Government’s original argument regarding the goal-setting nature of the statute.  The Court writes:

[T]he prefatory clause has no bearing on whether [Section] 8127(d)’s requirement is mandatory or discretionary.  The clause announces an objective that Congress hoped that the Department would achieve and charges the Secretary with setting annual benchmarks, but it does not change the plain meaning of the operative clause.

The Court next rejects the VA’s argument that the word “contracts” means that the VA Act doesn’t apply to FSS orders.  The Court writes that it would ordinarily not entertain an argument that the Government failed to raise at the lower courts, “ut the Department’s forfeited argument fails in any event.”

The Court explains that “[w]hen the Department places an FSS order, that order creates contractual obligations for each party and is a ‘contract’ within the ordinary meaning of that term.”  The Court also explains that an order is a contract “as defined by federal regulations,” particularly FAR 2.101.  The Court then goes into additional explanation about why FSS orders are types of contracts.

Finally, the Court rejects the Government’s argument that the Court should defer to the VA’s interpretation of the VA Act.  The Court simply writes that “we do not defer to the agency when the statute is unambiguous . . . [t]hus, we decline the Department’s invitation to defer to its interpretation.”

The Court concludes:

We hold that the Rule of Two contracting procedures in [Section] 8127(d) are not limited to those contracts necessary to fulfill the Secretary’s goals under [Section] 8127(a).  We also hold that [Section] 8127(d) applies to orders placed under the FSS.  The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The Aftermath of the Kingdomware Decision

For SDVOSBs and VOSBs, the Supreme Court’s Kingdomware decision is a huge win.  Ever since the VA Act was adopted, the VA has taken the position that it may order off the GSA Schedule without prioritizing veteran-owned businesses.  That’s about to change.

I expect that the Kingdomware decision will prove a major boon to SDVOSBs and VOSBs, ultimately resulting in billions of extra dollars flowing to veteran-owned companies.  The long battle is over–and SDVOSBs and VOSBs have won.

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Koprince Law LLC

The VA has officially withdrawn its November 2015 proposal to overhaul its SDVOSB and VOSB regulations.

The VA’s action isn’t surprising, given that the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requires the VA to work with the SBA to prepare a consolidated set of SDVOSB regulations, which will then apply to both VA and non-VA procurements.  What’s interesting, though, is that the VA doesn’t say that it’s withdrawing the 2015 proposal because of the 2017 NDAA, but rather because of numerous objections to the proposal–including objections from the SBA.

By way of quick background, the VA’s 2015 proposal would have significantly overhauled its SDVOSB and VOSB regulations with the goal of finding “an appropriate balance between preventing fraud in the Veterans First Contracting Program and providing a process that would make it easier for more VOSBs to become verified.”  The VA accepted comments on the proposal until January 2016.

As it turns out, those comments were largely negative.  According to the notice of withdrawal published in the September 1, 2017 Federal Register, of the 203 comments received, “134 of these comments were adverse to the proposed rule and VA’s verification program in general.”

Several of the adverse comments came from the SBA.  The SBA wrote, among other things, that the VA did “not provide any indication of the number of small businesses that may be impacted by the proposed change,” and that the proposed rule “failed to provide statutory or other legal authority following each cited substantive provision.”

Not all of the SBA’s objections concerned the rulemaking process.  SBA also objected to the VA’s proposal to remove an SDVOSB or VOSB from the database if the veteran in question was formally accused of a crime involving business integrity.  SBA (correctly, I think), said that this proposal “would seem to deny an applicant due process of law” because an accusation is not the same as a finding of guilt.

Other commentators also objected to various portions of the rule, including the VA’s proposal to make a firm wait 12 months, instead of six, to reapply after an application is denied.

After summarizing the reaction to its proposal, VA simply states: “ecause of the adverse comments received during the comment period, VA is withdrawing the proposed rule.”

What comes next for the SDVOSB and VOSB regulations?  Well, the 2017 NDAA directed the SBA and VA to issue a joint proposal within 180 days of the final enactment of the statute.  Former President Obama signed the bill into law on December 23, 2016, so the joint proposal is overdue–although I understand that the two agencies are working on it.


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Koprince Law LLC

The VA will “immediately comply with the Court’s decision” in Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, according to a top VA official.

In written testimony offered in advance of a Senate committee hearing tomorrow, the Executive Director of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization tells Congress that the VA will work to implement the Kingdomware decision, including by improving its market research processes.

In his testimony, Executive Director Thomas J. Leney states that his office has “already engaged VA’s acquisition workforce with new guidance, focusing most urgently on procurements currently in progress, but not yet awarded.”  Unfortunately, however, Mr. Leney doesn’t specify what guidance the acquisition workforce has been given regarding ongoing procurements; hopefully that’s something that the Committee members will be able to flesh out at the oral hearing.

Mr. Leney devotes much of his written testimony to pledges to strengthen the VA’s market research processes to identify qualified SDVOSBs and VOSBs.  “This means,” he writes, “market research must consist of more than merely finding firms in a particular industry code listed in the System for Award Management.”  Mr. Leney explains that VA Contracting Officers “can make better use of Requests of Information, or RFIs, for data-driven decision making.”  Additionally, Contracting Officers “need to meet with procurement-ready VOSBs to understand their capabilities and what they are already accomplishing.”

Mr. Leney concludes his written testimony by stating, “embracing the Court’s decision in Kingdomware . . . improves the Veteran experience, both as Veteran small business owners and as Veteran customers receiving the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve.”

Mr. Leney won’t be the only one testifying at tomorrow’s hearing.  LaTonya Barton of Kingdomware Technologies will also go before the Senate.  In her written testimony, Ms. Barton states:

We hope the VA takes the Supreme Court decision and Rule of Two mandate seriously and diligently works to implement it.  We have already lost almost ten years.  It is time for the VA to stop looking for loopholes and to redirect that energy into making the mandate work.

Hopefully, Mr. Leney’s comments reflect a genuine change of heart on the VA’s part, and a commitment to truly “embrace” Kingdomware, as Ms. Barton hopes.  Time will tell.


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Koprince Law LLC

SDVOSBs and VOSBs will only be required to obtain reverification every three years under an interim final rule adopted yesterday by the VA.

The VA’s new rule replaces the prior rule, which required reverification every two years.  The purpose of the change?  To “reduce the administrative burden on SDVOSB/VOSBs regarding participation in VA acquisition set asides for these types of firms.”

When the VA originally finalized its SDVOSB/VOSB program in 2010, VA “anticipated that annual examinations were necessary to ensure the integrity of the Verification Program.”  But the VA soon had second thoughts.  In 2012, the VA adopted a two-year program term.

Now, the VA believes that even a biennial reverification is unnecessary.  The VA explains that data from Fiscal Year 2016 “shows that out of 1,109 reverification applications, only ten were denied.”  Therefore, “only 0.9 percent of firms submitting reverification applications were found to be ineligible after two years.”

The VA notes that “[o]ther integrity aspects of the program remain adequate to oversee a 3-year eligibility period.”  For example, the VA “conducts a robust examination of personal and company documentation” when a firm first applies, and the VA’s regulations require a participant to inform the VA “of any changes that would adversely affect its eligibility.” Additionally, the VA “has the right to conduct random, unannounced site examinations of participants” or examine a participant “upon receipt of specific and credible information that a participant is no longer eligible.”  And of course, in the case of an SDVOSB or VOSB set-aside acquisition, VA contracting officers and competitors “have the right to raise a SDVOSB/VOSB status protest” of the awardee.

The VA’s change is an “interim final rule,” which means that it takes effect immediately, but is subject to revision upon receipt of public comments.  Comments are due April 24, 2017, and I imagine that they will be overwhelmingly positive.


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Koprince Law LLC

The VA has released an Acquisition Policy Flash providing guidance to VA Contracting Officers on implementing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States.

The Policy Flash suggests that the VA is, in fact, moving quickly to implement the Kingdomware decision–and if that’s the case, it is good news for SDVOSBs and VOSBs.

The Policy Flash begins by reiterating the Supreme Court’s major holdings: namely, that the Rule of Two applies to orders placed under the GSA Schedule, and applies even when the VA is meeting its SDVOSB and VOSB subcontracting goals.  The Policy Flash states that the VA “will implement the Supreme Court’s ruling in every context where the law applies.”

As a general matter, the Policy Flash instructs Contracting Officers to conduct robust market research to ensure compliance with the Rule of Two.  The Policy Flash continues:

If market research clearly demonstrates that offers are likely to be received from two or more qualified, capable and verified SDVOSBs or VOSBs and award will be made at a fair and reasonable price, the Rule of Two applies and the action should be appropriately set-aside in the contracting order of priority set forth in VAAR 819.7004.  Contracting officers shall also ensure SDVOSBs or VOSBs have been verified in VIP before evaluating any offers or making awards on an SDVOSB or VOSB set-aside.  Supporting documentation must be maintained in the contract file in the Electronic Contract Management System (eCMS).

With respect to acquisitions currently in the presolicitation phase, Contracting Officers are to continue with existing SDVOSB and VOSB set-asides.  However, “f the original acquisition strategy was not to set-aside the acquisition to SDVOSBs or VOSBs, a review of the original market research should be accomplished to confirm whether or not the ‘Rule of Two’ was appropriately considered . . ..”  If a review finds that the Rule of Two is met, “the action shall be set-aside for SDVOSBs or VOSBs, in accordance with the contracting order of priority set forth in VAAR 819.7004.”

Perhaps most intriguingly, the VA is instructing Contracting Officers to apply the Kingdomware decision to requirements that are in the solicitation or evaluation phase.  For these requirements, “[a] review of the original market research and VA Form 2268 shall be accomplished to confirm whether or not the ‘Rule of Two’ was appropriately considered . . ..”  If this review finds that ther are two or more SDVOSBs or VOSBs, “an amendment should be issued that cancels the solicitation.”  However, the agency can continue with an existing acquisition if there are “urgent and compelling circumstances” and an appropriate written justification is prepared and approved.

The VA apparently will not, however, apply Kingdomware to requirements that have been awarded to non-veteran companies, even where a notice to proceed has not yet been issued.  The Policy Flash sates that “Contracting officers shall coordinate with the HCA, OGC and OSDBU and be prepared to proceed with issuing the notice to proceed if issued within 30 days of this guidance.”

Overall, the Policy Flash seems like a positive step for veterans–both in terms of the speed with which it was issued, and in the decision to apply Kingdomware to existing solicitations, except where an award has already been made.


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The VA is considering using so-called “tiered evaluations” to address concerns that SDVOSBs and VOSBs may not always offer “fair and reasonable” pricing, even when two or more veteran-owned companies compete for a contract.

In a session yesterday at the National Veterans Small Business Engagement, a panel of VA acquisition leaders described the potential tiered evaluation process.  It’s hard to argue that the VA isn’t entitled to fair and reasonable pricing, but judging from the reaction in the room, some SDVOSBs and VOSBs may wonder whether tiered evaluations are an effort to circumvent Kingdomware.

The VA panel consisted of Thomas Leney, Executive Director of Small and Veteran Business Programs, Jan Frye, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Acquisition and Logistics, and Robert Fleck, Chief Counsel of the Office of General Counsel.

Mr. Leney, who spoke first, said that the Kingdomware decision has been “good for veterans and good for the VA,” and pointed out that the VA’s annual SDVOSB/VOSB spending rose significantly following Kingdomware.  That’s good news, of course.

But Mr. Frye said that when Kingdomware was decided in June 2016, the the VA was worried that the decision could, in some cases, result in higher prices and lengthier procurement processes.  The VA doesn’t currently have any hard data about whether that’s proven true on a macro level, but has commissioned a study to evaluate it.

In the meantime, Mr. Leney said, there is anecdotal evidence of cases where the VA has paid “excessive prices” to award to veteran-owned companies. The VA hopes that this is a “small problem in a few cases, not a widespread problem,” Mr. Leney said.  But apparently anticipating the need for policy changes to address the issue, the VA is considering adopting a tiered evaluation system in some procurements.

Under a tiered evaluation, a solicitation would be set-aside for SDVOSBs or VOSBs, but other companies (including large businesses) would also be able to submit proposals.  The agency would start by evaluating the proposals of the top tier–in most cases, likely SDVOSBs.  If the VA didn’t receive “fair and reasonable” pricing at that tier, the VA would go down to the next tier (probably VOSBs) and continue down the chain until a “fair and reasonable” offer was available to accept.

The speakers said that using a tiered evaluation approach would prevent procurement delays.  As it stands now, if an acquisition has been set aside for SDVOSBs but no SDVOSB offers a fair and reasonable price, the VA must cancel and resolicit.  Mr.  Leney said that there have been cases where the VA has solicited the same acquisition “two, three or four times” before receiving fair and reasonable pricing.  A tiered evaluation would eliminate this problem by allowing the contracting officer to simply go to the next tier, instead of resoliciting.

The speakers indicated that tiered evaluations wouldn’t be used in all acquisitions.  Mr. Leney said that the approach likely wouldn’t be used in acquisitions involving complex technical proposals because the VA would be unlikely to receive offers from companies whose proposals might never be considered.  On the other hand, the VA seems to think that the approach could work well in less-complex acquisitions, particularly where price is a critical factor.

It’s hard to argue that the VA isn’t entitled to “fair and reasonable” pricing.  Fair pricing is, of course, a bedrock principle of federal procurement.  But, judging from the mood in the room, the VA is going to have some work to do to convince SDVOSBs and VOSBs that this initiative (if it comes to pass) isn’t an attempt to circumvent Kingdomware.

One key consideration: how is “fair and reasonable” determined?  One speaker suggested that if the VA receives pricing that is lower than the prices submitted by SDVOSBs, the Contracting Officer might use that as evidence that the SDVOSB pricing wasn’t fair and reasonable.

Hopefully, that’s not how it would work: there’s a big difference between higher pricing and unreasonable pricing.  As one audience member pointed out, if reasonableness is judged based on the pricing submitted by non-veteran offerors (including large businesses), many SDVOSBs and VOSBs would have a tough time competing.

I give the VA leadership credit for coming to a public forum to discuss issues like these.  And I’m willing to wait and see the details before passing judgment on the proposal, should the VA decide to implement it.

But the VA must understand that the SDVOSB/VOSB community watched for years as the VA fought tooth-and-nail to evade the statutory preferences under 38 U.S.C. 8127.  With that history, some veterans are understandably skeptical that efforts like these are anything other than an attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ruling.

If the VA is going to implement tiered evaluations, or similar tools, the agency will have some convincing to do.  Stay tuned.


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The VA has adopted a Class Deviation to the VAAR, severely restricting the ability of VA Contracting Officers to request waivers of the nonmanufacturer rule–and, even more troubling, suggesting that Contracting Officers need not apply the statutory SDVOSB and VOSB preferences even when the SBA has already granted a class waiver.

You may be wondering “does the VA’s Class Deviation comply with Kingdomware?”  Good question.

Before diving into the details of the Class Deviation, let’s step back for a second to review why this is so important.

Under the SBA’s regulations, when any contract is set-aside for small businesses (including SDVOSBs and VOSBs) under a manufacturing NAICS code, there are two ways that the prime contractor can satisfy the requirements of the limitations on subcontracting.  As one option, the prime contractor can agree to pay no more than 50% of the amount paid by the government to it to firms that are not similarly situated.  In other words, the prime can do most or all of the manufacturing itself (or work with similarly situated small businesses).  Alternatively, the prime can sell the products of another business, so long as the prime qualifies as a nonmanufacturer.

For VA SDVOSB set-asides, VAAR 852.219-10 (VA Notice of Total Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Set-Aside) provides the applicable limitation on subcontracting.  While this clause has not yet been updated to reflect the new wording of the SBA’s regulations, it also recognizes the nonmanufacturer exception.  A nearly-identical provision is set forth in VAAR 852.219-11, which governs VOSB set-asides.

The nonmanufacturer rule, in turn, states that a company qualifies when it meets four requirements.  Among those, the company must “supply the end item of a small business manufacturer, processor or producer made in the United States or [obtain] a waiver of such requirement.”  The SBA is the only agency empowered to grant nonmanufacturer rule waivers.

An SBA nonmanufacturer rule waiver can be a “class” waiver, which applies to a class of products after the SBA determines that there are no small business manufacturers available to participate in the Federal procurement marketplace.  Anyone can request that the SBA process a class waiver.  Alternatively, the SBA can grant an “individual” nonmanufacturer rule waiver when it determines that no small business manufacturers are likely to be available for a particular solicitation.  Only a Contracting Officer can request an individual waiver.

So, to sum up, if a small business (including an SDVOSB or VOSB) wants to sell the product of a large business under a set-aside contract, the small business may do so provided that an SBA class waiver or nonmanufacturer rule waiver is in place (and provided that the small business satisfies the other criteria of the nonmanufacturer rule).  Many small businesses validly sell products this way: the SBA’s current class waiver list spans 14 pages.

That takes us to the VA’s recent Class Deviation.  The Class Deviation does two things.

First, the Class Deviation states that a Contracting Officer must receive the approval of the Head of the Contracting Activity, or HCA, to request an individual nonmanufacturer rule waiver from the SBA.  As this helpful GAO report states (see pages 3 and 4) there are only eight HCAs in the entire VA.  (For comparison, that’s the same number of people who have been in the Rolling Stones).

So the Class Deviation strips the discretion to request nonmanufacturer rule class waivers from VA Contracting Officers (where the FAR says it belongs) and limits it to only eight individuals.  Further, the HCA’s authority to approve individual nonmanufacturer waiver requests “cannot be redelegated.”  Anyone want to guess what this is likely to do to the number of requested and approved individual nonmanufacturer rule waiver requests?

Second, the Class Deviation says that “[w]here the SBA has issued a class waiver to the Nonmanufacturer Rule, a contracting officer must receive approval from the HCA prior to utilizing other than competitive procedures or restricted competition as defined in 38 U.S.C. 8127.”  The Class Deviation says that “[t]his is necessary to ensure HCAs have situational awareness of issues prompting the requests or use and, if needed, can take actions to mitigate requests or use.”  This authority, too, “cannot be redelegated.”

If you think that 38 U.S.C. 8127 sounds familiar, you’re absolutely right–it’s the “rule of two” statute made famous by Kingdomware.  When the Class Deviation says “other than competitive procedures,” it means “SDVOSB and VOSB sole source contracts.”  When the Class Deviation says “restricted competition” it means “SDVOSB and VOSB set-asides.”

In other words, the Class Deviation provides that a Contracting Officer cannot make an SDVOSB or VOSB sole source award or establish an SDVOSB or VOSB set-aside competition for a product covered by an SBA nonmanufacturer rule class waiver unless the HCA approves.  The almost-certain result is that many procurements that otherwise would have been set aside for SDVOSB and VOSB nonmanufacturers will be issued as unrestricted instead, with awards going to non-veteran companies.

The Class Deviation seems to make the assumption that the VA gets to pick and choose when to “use” a nonmanufacturer rule class waiver.  I’m not sure that the SBA would agree.  It seems to me that a class waiver either exists, or it doesn’t.

It’s hard to see this Class Deviation as anything but a premeditated targeting of SDVOSB and VOSB nonmanufacturers as somehow unworthy of the preferences established by 38 U.S.C. 8127 and Kingdomware.  I hope that the powers that be at the VA come to their senses and retract this poorly-conceived rule.  The Class Deviation itself doesn’t address the interplay between this rule and Kingdomware, and I’ll reserve for another day my thoughts on whether this Class Deviation complies with the Supreme Court’s ruling–but unless the VA does the right thing and withdraws the Class Deviation, my crystal ball sees another battle in the future.


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A non-SDVOSB company couldn’t protest the terms of a VA SDVOSB set-aside solicitation, despite entering into a joint venture agreement with an SDVOSB–because the joint venture hadn’t started the process of becoming verified by the VA.

In a recent bid protest decision, GAO held that because neither the protester nor the joint venture was included in the VIP database, or likely to be included during the protest process, the protester wasn’t an “interested party” under the GAO’s bid protest regulations.

The GAO’s decision in Owl, Inc.; MLB Transportation, Inc., B-414962, B-414692 (Oct. 17, 2017) involved a VA solicitation for wheelchair van transport services for the beneficiaries of the Atlanta VA Medical Center.  The solicitation was issued as an SDVOSB set-aside.

Before the due date for proposals, two companies filed pre-award GAO protests.  Both companies argued that the solicitation’s scope of work was vague and that the pricing schedule was unfair, among other grounds of protest.

The VA moved to dismiss the protest filed by MLB Transportation, Inc.  The VA argued that MLB was not an interested party to pursue the protest because it was not a verified SDVOSB listed in the VIP database.

MLB conceded that it was not an SDVOSB, but stated that it had entered into a joint venture agreement with an SDVOSB to pursue the contract.  MLB acknowledged that the joint venture wasn’t listed in the VIP database, and “had not begun its VIP system application until after the time that it filed its protest.”

The GAO wrote that, under its bid protest regulations “[o]nly an ‘interested party’ may protest a federal procurement; a protester must be an actual or prospective bidder whose direct economic interest would be affected by the award of a contract or the failure to award a contract.”  In this case, GAO said, “[w]e agree with the agency that where neither MLB or its claimed joint venture are listed on the VIP website or likely to be approved to be listed on the VIP website during the protest process, the protester is not an interested party to pursue its protest.”

The GAO dismissed MLB’s protest.  (The second protest wasn’t dismissed, but was denied on the merits).

Interestingly, the GAO didn’t hold that a company must be listed in the VIP database to challenge the terms of an SDVOSB set-aside.  Instead, the GAO indicated that a company might be eligible to protest if it was “likely to be approved” during the course of the protest process.  In MLB’s case, then, the biggest problem may not have been that its joint venture was unverified, but that the joint venture hadn’t even started its application when the protest was filed.

It’s possible, of course, that MLB didn’t realize that joint ventures must be separately verified to win VA SDVOSB set-aside contracts.  In my experience, it’s rather common for contractors to assume that so long as the joint venture’s lead member is verified, the joint venture qualifies.  Not so.

As the GAO confirmed back in 2011, joint ventures must be separately verified in the VIP database.  And as MLB Transportation demonstrates, when the joint venture isn’t separately listed in VIP, and has yet to submit an application, the joint venture (and its non-SDVOSB member) are likely out of the running for a viable pre-award GAO protest.


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In its evaluation of proposals, a procuring agency gave a challenger a strength for proposing to recruit incumbent employees, but didn’t give the incumbent contractor a strength–even though the incumbent contractor proposed to retain the very same people.

Unsurprisingly, the GAO found that the evaluation was unequal, and sustained the incumbent’s protest.

The GAO’s decision in SURVICE Engineering Company, LLC, B-414519 (July 5, 2o17) involved an Air Force solicitation for engineering, program management, and administrative services at Eglin Air Force Base.  The solicitation called for award to the offeror proposing the best value to the government, considering three factors: technical capability and risk, past performance, and cost/price.  There were four technical subfactors, including a subfactor for technical workforce management.

SURVICE Engineering Company, LLC or SEC, was the incumbent contractor.  SEC submitted a proposal, in which it proposed to retain its incumbent personnel.  Engineering Research and Consulting, Inc., or ERC, also submitted a proposal.  ERC proposed to recruit many of SEC’s incumbent personnel.

In its evaluation of the technical workforce management subfactor, the Air Force assigned a strength to ERC for proposing to recruit SEC’s “high-performing, highly-skilled senior staff.”  However, the Air Force did not assign SEC a strength for proposing to retain its own incumbents.  The Air Force awarded the contract to ERC.

SEC filed a GAO bid protest.  SEC raised a number of allegations, including unequal treatment in the evaluation of the technical workforce management subfactor.  SEC contended that it was improper for the Air Force to award ERC a strength for proposing to recruit SEC’s incumbents, while not assigning SEC a strength for proposing to retain the same people.

The GAO wrote that “t is a fundamental principal of federal procurement law that a contracting agency must treat all offerors equally and evaluate their proposals evenhandedly against the solicitation’s requirements and evaluation criteria.”  Where an agency applies “a more exacting standard” to certain offerors’ proposals than others, “we have found such evaluation to involve disparate treatment.”

In this case, “SEC did not receive a strength for retaining its own employees by respecting seniority or for proposing the same staff.”  And “[w]here the parties propose essentially the same workforce, and where the agency assessed strengths for the awardee’s efforts to retain the workforce and has not shown why it did not assign similar strengths to the protester’s proposal, we conclude that the agency applied the evaluation criteria unequally and therefore that the evaluation was unreasonable.”

The GAO sustained this aspect of SEC’s protest.

The Air Force undoubtedly thought that it would be easier for SEC to retain its own employees than for a challenger like ERC to recruit them.  But that wasn’t a valid basis for assigning a strength only to ERC.  Both companies proposed the same people, so ERC’s proposal didn’t offer a benefit to the government that was missing from SEC’s proposal.

The SURVICE Engineering Company case is a good reminder that an agency cannot hold an incumbent to a higher standard than other offerors, at least not unless there are unusual circumstances–which didn’t exist here.


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An offeror’s proposal was properly rejected as late because the proposal exceeded the agency’s email file size limit.

In a recent bid protest decision highlighting, the GAO held that a small business’s proposal was late because the emails transmitting the proposal exceeded 10 MB–even though the solicitation didn’t mention a file size limit.

 

The GAO’s decision in Washington Coach Corporation, B-413809 (Dec. 28, 2016) involved a VA solicitation for executive driver transportation services.  The solicitation was apparently classified as an acquisition of commercial items, and contained FAR clause 52.212-1 (Instructions to Offerors–Commercial Items).

The solicitation required that proposals be submitted by email to the Contracting Officer and Contracting Specialist.  The solicitation did not mention any limit on the sizes of files that could be emailed to the agency.  Proposals were due on September 16, 2016 at 2:00 p.m.

On September 16 at 1:19 p.m., Washington Coach Corporation attempted to send its proposal by email to the two VA email addresses.  WCC’s email apparently exceeded 10 MB in size.  WCC’s emails were not received by the VA.

At 1:55 p.m., WCC called the VA in an attempt to confirm receipt of the proposal.  WCC received a voicemail message.  After the 2:00 deadline, WCC made three subsequent attempts to call the VA.  WCC also sent emails to the Contracting Officer and Contracting Specialist requesting confirmation that the proposal had been received.

The Contracting Officer and Contracting Specialist received WCC’s request for confirmation, and forwarded them to the VA’s IT department to determine whether a proposal had been received from WCC.  After several days, the IT department concluded that the emails had been sent, but had not been received “at the Local Exchange Level” because they “exceeded the size limit which is allowed by VA Policy,” that is, because they exceeded 10 MB.

The VA determined that WCC’s proposal was late because it had not been received before the proposal deadline.  The VA also determined that none of the exceptions set forth in FAR 52.212-1 applied to WCC’s circumstance.  The VA declined to evaluate WCC’s proposal.

WCC filed a GAO bid protest challenging the VA’s decision.  WCC argued that it submitted its proposal to the correct email addresses identified in the solicitation before the 2:00 deadline.  WCC also pointed out that the solicitation did not identify the 10 MB file size limitation.

The GAO wrote that “ it is an offeror’s responsibility to delivery its proposal to the proper place at the proper time.”  Proposals received after the exact time specified are deemed late, and ordinarily cannot be considered.  GAO explained, “[w]hile the rule may seem harsh, it alleviates confusion, ensures equal treatment of all offerors, and prevents one offeror from obtaining a competitive advantage” by submitting a proposal later than other offerors.

In keeping with these general principles, “ we view it as an offeror’s responsibility, when transmitting its proposal electronically, to ensure the proposal’s timely delivery by transmitting the proposal sufficiently in advance of the time set for receipt of proposals to allow for timely receipt by the agency.”  In that regard, “it is an offeror’s responsibility to ensure that an electronically submitted proposal is received by–not just submitted to–the appropriate agency email address prior to the time set for closing.”

The GAO noted that FAR 52.212-1(f), which was incorporated in the solicitation, does provide an important exception under which electronically-submitted proposals may be considered even if they would otherwise be deemed late.  The exception applies where the Contracting Officer determines that accepting the late proposal would not unduly delay the acquisition, and the proposal “was received at the initial point of entry to the Government infrastructure not later than 5:00 p.m. one working day prior to the date specified for receipt of offers.”

Unfortunately for WCC, the exception didn’t apply because WCC’s proposal “was not received at the initial point of entry by 5:00 p.m. the day before proposals were due . . ..”  Instead, WCC submitted its proposal about 40 minutes before the final deadline.

The GAO denied WCC’s protest.

The Washington Coach Corporation case is a cautionary tale for contractors.  As the GAO’s decision demonstrates, an agency may be able to reject as “late” an electronically submitted proposal if the file size is too large–even if the solicitation didn’t identify any size limits.  In an age where proposals are increasingly being submitted by electronic means, it’s important for contractors to be aware of this “harsh” rule.

Of course, WCC’s story might have had a happy ending had the company taken measures to prevent the potential file size problem.  For one, WCC could have checked with the VA during the proposal stage to determine whether there were any file size limits.  WCC also could have submitted its proposal a day earlier.  As the GAO’s decision demonstrates, for commercial item solicitations containing FAR 52.212-1, the agency can accept an otherwise “late” electronically-submitted proposal, but only if the proposal was submitted the prior working day (or earlier).

WCC, like many offerors, waited until the last minute–or close to it, anyway–to submit its proposal.  By waiting until so close to the deadline, WCC not only decreased its odds of reaching the Contracting Officer and Contracting Specialist to confirm receipt of its proposal before the deadline, but essentially waived the late proposal exception provided by FAR 52.212-1(f).

 

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An 8(a) joint venture failed to obtain SBA’s approval of an addendum to its joint venture agreement—and the lack of SBA approval cost the joint venture an 8(a) contract.

In Alutiiq-Banner Joint Venture, B-412952 et al. (July 15, 2016), GAO sustained a protest challenging an 8(a) joint venture’s eligibility for award where that joint venture had not previously sought (or received) SBA’s approval for an addendum to its joint venture agreement.

At the big picture level, SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program Regulations contain strict requirements that an 8(a) entity must satisfy before joint venturing with another entity for an 8(a) contract. For instance, the 8(a) joint venture must have a detailed joint venture agreement that, among other things, sets forth the specific purpose of the joint venture (usually relating to the performance of a specific solicitation). Where the joint venture seeks to modify its joint venture agreement (even to allow for the performance of another 8(a) contract), the Regulations require prior approval of any such amendment or addendum by the SBA. 13 C.F.R. § 124.513(e).

At issue in Alutiiq-Banner was a NASA 8(a) set-aside solicitation that sought to issue a single-award IDIQ contract for human resources and professional services. In late March 2016, CTRM-GAPSI JV, LLC (“CGJV”), an 8(a) joint venture between GAP Solutions and CTR Management Group, was named the contract awardee. As part of this award, the contracting officer made a responsibility determination that included an undated letter from the SBA stating that “CTRMG/GAPSI JV” was an eligible 8(a) joint venture under the solicitation.

Alutiiq-Banner Joint Venture protested this evaluation and award decision on various grounds, including that CGJV was not an eligible 8(a) entity and, thus, should not have received the award.

According to Alutiiq-Banner, CTRM-/GAPSI JV (the entity that submitted the proposal) and CTRM-GAPSI JV, LLC (the awardee) were different entities. The awardee-entity did not exist until an official corporate registration was filed for the joint venture until April 2016; NASA, however, completed its evaluation and made its award the month prior. Because CGJV did not exist until after the award, it was not the firm that submitted the proposal—it was a newly-created and legally-distinct entity that was not approved by the SBA for this 8(a) award.

NASA, in response, characterized Alutiiq-Banner’s arguments as trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. That is, NASA said the protest challenged the awardee’s name, and that any differences were “insignificant clerical issues.” Because NASA identified the entities that prepared the proposal and that was awarded the contract under the same DUNS number and CAGE code, there was “no material doubt of the awardee’s identity.”

GAO sought SBA’s input as to whether the awardee was a different entity than the SBA had approved for award as a joint venture. According to the SBA, they were the same entities. But apparently, the SBA’s approval of CGJV’s joint venture agreement upon which the contracting officer relied in finding CGJV a responsible entity was outdated; it did not relate to the addendum that allowed CGJV to perform under this particular solicitation. Thus, the SBA said that CGJV’s failure to obtain approval for this addendum to its joint venture agreement violated the SBA’s regulations. As a result, the SBA said that it would rescind its approval of CGJV’s award eligibility, and recommended that the award be terminated.

In response to the SBA’s recommendation, both CGJV and NASA instead requested that GAO stay its decision on Alutiiq-Banner’s protest pending approval of CGJV’s joint venture agreement addendum. GAO refused to do so, noting its statutory obligation to decide protests within 100 days.

GAO sustained Alutiiq-Banner’s protest, agreeing with the SBA that the award to CGJV was improper. It wrote:

[T]here appears to be no significant dispute that CGJV did not seek the approval for this award as required under the 8(a) program, and the SBA did not have a basis to approve the award—both of which are required by the SBA’s regulations as a precondition of awarding the set-aside contract to a joint venture.

GAO thus recommended the award to CGJV be terminated and, as part of NASA’s re-evaluation, that NASA and the SBA confirm that the selected awardee is an eligible 8(a) participant before making the award decision.

It’s a common misconception that 8(a) joint ventures are approved “in general,” that is, that once SBA approves a joint venture for one contract, the joint venture “is 8(a)” and can pursue other 8(a) contracts without SBA approval. Not so. As Alutiiq Banner demonstrates, an 8(a) joint venture must obtain SBA’s separate approval for each 8(a) contract it wishes to pursue. Failing to get that approval may cost a joint venture the contract—something CGJV learned the hard way.

 


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GAO sustained a protest recently where an agency had given higher past performance scores to a proposal with two relevant examples of past performance than a proposal with five relevant examples.

In Patricio Enterprises, Inc., B-412740 et al. (Comp. Gen. May 26, 2016), GAO said that an agency cannot mechanically apply an evaluation formula that produces an unreasonable result, such as allowing a proposal with fewer examples of relevant past performance to somehow earn a higher score than a proposal with more examples.

The Patricio Enterprises case had to do with an SDVOSB set-aside procurement for the U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Systems Command for program and financial management support services for the Marines’ Program Manager, Infantry Weapons Systems program. The solicitation called for a best value evaluation encompassing three factors: management and staffing capability, past performance, and price.

With respect to the past performance factor, the solicitation instructed offerors to provide summaries of up to five contracts that were recent and similar in size and scope to the project. The evaluation scheme would involve assigning each example a relevancy and quality of performance rating, which would lead to an overall past performance confidence rating.

Among the offerors were Patricio Enterprises, Inc. of Stafford, Va., and Get It Done Solutions, LLC, of Fredricksburg, Va.  Get It Done submitted a proposal with three past performance examples.  Two of them received ratings of very relevant/exceptional while the third was determined to not be relevant. Patricio meanwhile, proposed five examples of past performance. The agency rated two of the proposals very relevant/exceptional (the same as Get It Done), one very relevant/very good, and two relevant/exceptional.

Based on this, one might assume that Patricio earned the higher past performance rating. Not so. The agency determined that a proposal would earn a substantial confidence rating only when all relevant past performance was rated very relevant, with exceptional performance. Get It Done, with two relevant contracts, met this standard and received a substantial confidence rating. But in Patricio’s case, even though Patricio also had three very relevant/exceptional projects, Patricio’s other three projects scored lower (though no worse than relevant/very good). Because the three additional examples did not receive perfect scores, the agency gave Patricio’s proposal a lower “substantial confidence” rating.

The agency awarded the contract to Get It Done, based in part on Get It Done’s higher past performance score.  Patricio then filed a GAO bid protest.

GAO s wrote that the agency had used an unreasonable methodology in evaluating past performance. It explained:”n our view, the agency’s mechanical evaluation of past performance was unreasonable where the result was that the additional relevant past performance references with exceptional and very good quality resulted in a downgraded past performance rating.” GAO sustained the protest and recommended that the agency re-evaluate offerors’ past performance.

Agencies have fairly broad discretion in their evaluations, but an evaluation scheme must be reasonable and logical. In sustaining Patricio’s protest, GAO basically told the agency to use some common sense. In other words, two is not greater than five.


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We previously have written about the trending preference toward fixed-price contracts, and away from cost reimbursement contracts, in defense procurements.  The Defense Department’s supplement to the FAR (known as DFARS), in fact, already includes restrictions on using cost-reimbursement or time and materials contracts.

Now the President has come out in favor of fixed-price defense contracting. In a Time Magazine article published today, President Trump signaled strong support for the fixed-price contracting preference, going so far as to “talk of his plans to renegotiate any future military contracts to make sure they have fixed prices.”

The article, called “Donald Trump After Hours,” is wide-ranging and does not delve into specifics as to how President Trump might reshape defense contracting. But in language a bit too salty for this blog, he makes clear that time and materials contracts aren’t his favorite method of contracting.

It’s unclear what the practical effect of President Trump’s preference for fixed-price contracts might be. Will the President push for more specific laws or regulations mandating his contract preferences? Will Secretary Mattis or other Trump appointees issue additional internal guidance? We don’t know, but will continue to follow this issue.


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President Donald Trump won’t repeal former President Obama’s 2014 Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

According to CNN and other news outlets, the new Administration will allow Executive Order 13672 to remain on the books.  The Executive Order, which was codified in the FAR in 2015, adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected categories under the FAR’s Equal Opportunity clause, FAR 52.222-26.

In recent days, the new Administration had faced repeated questions about whether Executive Order 13672 would remain in place.  While this week’s announcement puts those questions to rest, the fate of other government contracts Executive Orders signed by President Obama, such as the so-called “mandatory sick leave” Executive Order, remains uncertain.  My colleagues and I will keep you posted.


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The VA’s Verification Assistance Brief for SDVOSB and VOSB joint ventures flat-out misstates the law regarding the manner in which joint venture profits must be split.

SDVOSBs and VOSBs often rely on Verification Assistance Briefs to guide them through the CVE verification process, and CVE analysts sometimes use Verification Assistance Briefs, too.  Which begs the question: how many CVE-verified joint ventures are legally invalid?

The VAAR provides that a joint venture can be eligible for a VA SDVOSB or VOSB set-aside contract so long as the joint venture (among other things) adopts a joint venture agreement meeting the requirements of the SBA’s SDVOSB regulations.  So far, so good–joint ventures are complex enough; the last thing we need is a separate, VA-specific list of SDVOSB joint venture requirements.

Effective August 24, 2016, the SBA overhauled its requirements for SDVOSB joint ventures.  The SBA moved the regulations from 13 C.F.R. 125.15 to 13 C.F.R. 125.18, and made many substantive changes and additions.

The SBA made a further correction, effective December 27, 2016, which governs how profits are split.  The current regulation on profits is codified at 13 C.F.R. 125.18(b)(2)(iv), which states that every SDVOSB joint venture agreement must contain a provision “tating that the SDVO SBC(s) must receive profits from the joint venture commensurate with the work performed by the SDVO SBC.”  (Here’s a link to the Federal Register, which officially adopted this formula as law).

That brings us to the VA’s Verification Assistance Brief on joint ventures.  Now, to be fair, I’m a fan of the Verification Assistance Briefs as a general matter.  I like that the CVE has made the effort to put verification information in a user-friendly and accessible format.  But the Verification Assistance Briefs are only helpful if they contain accurate and up-to-date information.  As of the date of this post, the SDVOSB/VOSB joint venture regulation does not.

According to the Verification Assistance Brief:

4. The joint venture agreement must contain a provision “tating that the SDVO SBC must receive profits from the joint venture…commensurate with their ownership interests in the joint venture…” 13 CFR § 125.18(b)(2)(iv).

Later on the Brief reiterates:

The SDVOSB or VOSB must receive a distribution of profits commensurate with its ownership interests in the joint venture.

Wrong, wrong, wrong!  This hasn’t been accurate since December 2016.

Far from being helpful, then, this Verification Assistance Brief is dangerous.  It invites SDVOSBs and VOSBs to submit legally deficient joint venture agreements.  It invites CVE analysts to approve legally deficient joint venture agreements.  And, to the extent that the CVE has approved deficient SDVOSB or VOSB joint ventures (and I’d bet a fair bit that it has), it exposes those joint ventures to the possibility of successful SDVOSB status protests.

Has the CVE simply been slow to update its information to reflect the December 2016 change?  Well, the Verification Assistance Brief (which, by the way, is the “Featured” Brief on the VA OSDBU website) says that it was “Reviewed and Revised May 2017.”  Yikes.  It needs a re-review, and fast.

One more thing: if the CVE has approved any JVs containing the wrong profit-splitting provision, the CVE ought to unilaterally contact those companies and ask them to revise their JV agreements now.  It would be a horrible thing if a well-meaning JV were to lose an SDVOSB eligibility protest–and a contract–simply because it followed an incorrect Verification Assistance Brief.


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I am back in Lawrence after a great trip to Minneapolis last week for the 2016 National Veterans Small Business Engagement.  At the NVSBE, I presented four Learning Sessions: one on the nomanufacturer rule, the second on SDVOSB joint ventures, the third on best (and worst) practices in prime/subcontractor teaming agreements, and the fourth on common myths in the SBA’s size and socioeconomic set-aside programs (no, a contractor is not required to list a solicitation’s specific NAICS code in the contractor’s SAM profile).

It was great to see so many familiar faces and make so many new acquaintances.  A big thank you to the organizers for putting on this fantastic event and inviting me to speak.  Thank you, also, to all of the contractors, acquisition personnel and others who attended my Learning Sessions, asked insightful questions, and stuck around to chat afterwards.  Another “thank you” who those who stopped by the Koprince Law LLC booth on the trade show floor to talk about government contracts law and collect a spiffy Koprince Law pen.  And finally, thank you to all of the veterans who attended the NVSBE–and those who didn’t–for your service to our country.


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I am back from a great trip to Salt Lake City, where I spoke at the Utah PTAC Symposium.  My talk at the symposium centered on prime/subcontractor teams and joint ventures–topics of ever-increasing interest for small and large contractors alike.

It was wonderful to see so many clients and old friends at the Symposium and meet so many new people, too.  A big “thank you” to Chuck Spence and his team at the Utah PTAC for organizing this event and inviting me to speak.  And thank you, also, to everyone who attended my seminar and stopped by the Koprince Law LLC booth to talk about government contracts.

I’ll be sticking around Kansas for a few weeks, although I’ll be making a short trip down to Wichita on Tuesday to give a half-day session on the SBA’s All Small Mentor-Protege Program, sponsored by the Kansas PTAC.  If you’re a Kansas contractor, I hope to see you there.


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I am back in Lawrence after a great trip to San Diego for the 2017 Department of the Navy Gold Coast Small Business Procurement Event.  I gave a session at Gold Coast on the SBA’s new All Small Mentor-Protege Program, and enjoyed speaking with contractors, government representatives, and others on the trade show floor.

Thank you very much to the San Diego chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association for sponsoring this fantastic event and inviting me to speak.  Thank you also to the fine folks of the San Diego Contracting Opportunities Center and American Indian Chamber Education Fund PTAC for sharing their booth.  And a big thank you to the many contractors who attended the session and asked great questions–so many, in fact, that some people stuck around 30 minutes after the session ended to chat.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of attending Gold Coast, I strongly encourage you to put it on your radar screen for 2018.  As for me, I’ll be hitting the road again soon: I will be in Norman, Oklahoma next week for the annual Indian Country Business Summit, one of my favorite procurement events each year.  Hope to see you there!


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I am back in Lawrence after a great trip to the Pacific Northwest for the SAME 2017 Small Business Symposium, hosted by the SAME Seattle Post.  I gave two talks at the Symposium: the first focused on the legal requirements for joint ventures and prime/subcontractor teaming arrangements, and the second on the SBA’s new All Small Mentor-Protege Program.

A big “thank you” to Julie Erickson for organizing the event and inviting me to speak, and thanks also to Thomas Nichols for his kind introductions at both talks.  And of course, thank you to all of the contractors, government officials and clients who attended the sessions and asked such insightful questions.

I’ll be sticking around Kansas for the next several weeks, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll be taking a break from speaking about government contracts.  Please join me and the Kansas PTAC for in-depth sessions on the government’s four major socioeconomic programs: 8(a), SDVOSB, HUBZone, and WOSB.  These sessions will be held in Wichita and Overland Park; click here for details and to register.  Hope to see you there!


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I am back in Lawrence after a great trip to Omaha, where I spoke at the SAME Omaha Post Industry Day.  My talk focused on recent legal changes in federal contracting, including pieces of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act and the SBA’s implementation of the All Small Mentor-Protege Program.

Thank you very much to Anita Larson and the rest of the Planning Committee for organizing this great event and inviting me to speak.  Thank you also to all of the clients, contractors, and government representatives who stopped by my “booth” in the Exhibit Hall to ask questions and chat about the nuances of government contracts law.  As much as I enjoy speaking to large groups, it’s these one-on-one discussions that make for a truly outstanding conference.

Next up for me: the Department of Energy Small Business Conference, which will be right in my backyard (Kansas City) next week.  Hope to see you there!


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