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News Digest: June 11

Jun. 10, 2012 - 03:27PM   |  
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Pentagon freezes conference travel

The Defense Department has ordered a freeze on all large-scale conferences and conference-related travel, pending a sweeping review that aims to cut travel costs across the department.

The order, signed June 3 by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, orders the military service chiefs to review all upcoming conferences costing more than $100,000 to ensure that they “significantly further the department’s mission.”

“Each component or service shall suspend incurring any new obligations for conferences to which it is not yet committed until it has completed its review,” Carter wrote.

Conferences expected to cost more than $100,000 will require approval from top Pentagon officials, according to the memo.

The memo follows a directive from President Obama in May calling on all agencies to reduce travel costs by 30 percent for fiscal 2013.

OMB asks for small-business data

Joseph Jordan, the new federal procurement policy chief at the Office of Management and Budget, is asking agencies to report steps they are taking to increase contracting with small businesses.

In his first memo last week, Jordan called on agencies to report on how they:

• Set aside contracts for small businesses.

• Set aside contracts and orders for small businesses under federal supply schedules.

• Hold senior procurement officials accountable for small-business contracting goals.

Jordan was formerly associate administrator for government contracting and business development at the Small Business Administration.

In an interview with Federal Times last week, he said he plans to improve contract reporting systems. He wants agencies to be able to post interagency contracts online, which should help his office get a handle on the number of contracts used governmentwide.

Agencies also need to share the prices they pay for products, so contracting officers start their purchasing with an understanding of what other agencies have paid for the same commodity, he said.

AFGE president Gage to retire

American Federation of Government Employees National President John Gage is retiring.

Gage, who served nine years, said in a June 4 letter that he has decided not to run for a fourth term in August. He said he wants to spend time with his family and “contribute to the labor movement in other ways.”

Gage is one of the nation’s most vocal supporters of federal employees, and in recent years has frequently denounced efforts to cut federal employees’ benefits, freeze their pay and cut their ranks.

During his tenure, AFGE was engaged in two elections with the National Treasury Employees Union to win the rights to represent Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration employees. AFGE lost the 2006 CBP election, which cost it about 6,000 CBP employees it formerly represented. But last June, TSA screeners chose AFGE over NTEU, gaining AFGE the right to represent about 43,000 screeners.

AFGE National Secretary-Treasurer David Cox, the union’s second-highest ranking officer, will seek to replace Gage in August’s election. Alex Bastani, president of AFGE’s Local 12, which represents Labor Department employees, is also running for president. Bastani took 45 percent of the vote against Gage in the 2009 election.

OPM reduces pension claims backlog in May

The Office of Personnel Management processed more retirement claims than it expected to in May to help bring the size of its backlog down to 49,473 — about 5,100 fewer cases than it expected to have by the end of May.

According to monthly stats released last week, the number of claims processed in May jumped to 9,066 — about 500 more than OPM anticipated it would process last month.

And for the second month in a row, the number of new retirement claims received by OPM was lower than anticipated. OPM expected 8,000 feds to retire last month, but only got 7,523 retirement applications.

OPM’s goal is to reduce the backlog to 13,000 open cases by July 2013.

Changes to LEED certification delayed

The U.S. Green Building Council is delaying planned changes in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification program. LEED is used to measure how eco-friendly buildings are.

The Council delayed making changes to LEED in response to concerns by some that the changes would disadvantage some U.S. industry sectors.

The General Services Administration uses LEED to certify that new federal buildings meet energy and environmental standards.

The USGBC has been under pressure to alter certification guidelines, which lawmakers and industry groups say unfairly disfavor construction products such as PVC pipes and domestic wood.

On May 18, 56 House lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to acting GSA administrator Dan Tangherlini telling him to drop GSA’s use of LEED as a rating system.

The USGBC said it will delay its new rules, which had been slated to take effect July 1, until June 1, 2013.

Arbitration panel backs AFGE on TSA question

If the American Federation of Government Employees and Transportation Security Administration come to an impasse in their ongoing contract negotiations, they must accept arbitrators’ decisions, a panel ruled June 1 in supporting AFGE’s position on the issue.

AFGE is now negotiating the first contract for federal airport security screeners with TSA. AFGE challenged TSA’s position that a ruling by an impasse arbitration panel would not be final. AFGE said this “would have created an endless loop that could prevent [screeners] from ever obtaining a contract.”

A panel at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service agreed with the union that any contract terms decided by an impasse panel should be final and binding.

“We are very pleased with this decision because it means the process will result in a collective bargaining agreement“ for screeners, AFGE National President John Gage said.

VA to argue small-business case in court

The Veterans Affairs Department said in a statement it plans to argue its side of a dispute in federal court over set-aside contracts for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses.

The conflict stems from a 2006 law that says VA contracting officers shall set aside contracts for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses if the agency believes two or more such businesses can perform the work for a fair and reasonable price.

However, VA argues that the statute does not apply to purchases made through the federal supply schedules.

The department spent more than $3 billion of its $16 billion contracting budget last year on purchases made through the schedules program, according to figures reported by Bloomberg Government.

If a federal court rules that the agency should set aside federal supply schedule orders, service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses could have the first crack at that $3 billion business.

Two service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses — Aldevra and Kingdomware Technologies — separately or together have protested seven VA solicitations under the federal supply schedules.

The Government Accountability Office has sustained all of the protests.

A group called the Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business Network, based in California, filed a case against VA in district court last year. The case was moved to the U.S. Federal Claims Court in April.

“They have a mission to accomplish, and that’s to help veterans,” said Valerie Lewis, the group’s president. “I think they lost sight of their mission.”

Senate panel approves cap on contractor pay

Defense contractors could charge the government no more than the vice president earns — currently $230,700 — to pay most of their employees’ salaries, under a provision in the Defense authorization bill approved last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The current cap — $763,029 — applies to defense contractor employees’ wages, salary, bonuses and deferred compen-sation.

The current cap, based on the median compensation of senior executives in large U.S. corporations, has increased by more than 75 percent in eight years, from $432,851 in 2004.

“At a time when most Americans are seeing little or no increase in their paychecks and budget constraints require the Department of Defense to find efficiencies in all areas, the committee concludes that increases of this magnitude are unsupportable,” the Senate Armed Services Committee said in its report on the bill.

Exceptions to the compensation cap would continue for contractor employees with “unique and needed skills and capabilities,” such as scientists and engineers.

Supporters of the amendment say companies can still pay employees as much as they want.

However, lowering the cap constrains contractors’ ability to compete for talent, especially small businesses or companies whose business comes mostly from federal contracts, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council, a trade association.

FAA awards contract for cloud-based email

The Federal Aviation Administration has awarded a $91 million contract to Computer Sciences Corp. to move 80,000 employees to a cloud email system.

Under the contract, which has a one-year base period and six option years, employees will have access to Microsoft’s cloud-based email, instant messaging, calendar tools and web conferencing from any device, according to CSC.

GSA IG finds price discrepancies in contracts

The General Services Administration negotiated different prices for the same cloud-based services in separate contracts it awarded in 2010, the GSA inspector general’s office said in a report released last week.

GSA’s Integrated Technology Services awarded a dozen blanket purchase agreements (BPAs) for up to $76.6 million for three categories of cloud-based infrastructure — cloud storage services, virtual machines and web hosting.

Two evaluation teams that worked on the awards did not collaborate, so vendors offered different prices on BPAs for the same services, the IG said.

GSA last year revised its guidance to address those issues in future contracts, Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Steve Kempf said in a written response to the IG.

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