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News Digest: Aug. 13

Aug. 12, 2012 - 09:14PM   |  
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Executive order on cybersecurity?

The Obama administration is considering the use of executive branch authorities to better secure the electric grid and other critical systems against cyber attacks.

The Senate failed to pass cybersecurity legislation before its August recess that would have set voluntary security standards for companies operating critical infrastructure, such as the electric grid, water treatment facilities and transportation systems. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not said when he plans to reintroduce the bill, S 3414.

“If the Congress is not going to act on something like this, then the president wants to make sure that we’re doing everything possible,” John Brennan, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, told the Council on Foreign Relations last week.

White House officials are determining what cybersecurity guidelines or policies can be enforced through executive order to enhance cybersecurity of critical infrastructure, most of which is controlled by the private sector.

Watchdog faults ethics office’s oversight of GSA

The Office of Government Ethics didn’t do enough to head off scandal at the General Services Administration, a watchdog group charges.

The group, Cause of Action, in an Aug. 2 memorandum urges President Obama to consider transferring OGE’s responsibility for ethics compliance to the inspectors general.

As far back as 1994, the ethics office was aware of GSA’s vulnerability to ethics abuses, the memo said. While the office did conduct a review, it ruled in October 2010 that GSA’s ethics program complied with federal standards. That was the same month GSA held its now-notorious Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas at a cost of almost $823,000.

From 2007 to at least 2010, GSA also failed to follow regulations and name a Designated Agency Ethics Officer, and instead relied on an unnamed alternate who spent less than one-quarter of her time on ethics-related duties, Cause of Action said.

In an email, an OGE spokesman said that the group misunderstands the ethics office’s “authorities and mission.” Laws and regulations related to appropriations, travel and personnel are outside OGE’s purview, he said, adding that the ethics office “is not an investigatory agency, but routinely works closely with inspectors general.”

A GSA spokeswoman had no comment.

Army issues solicitation for renewable energy

The Army wants to buy up to $7 billion in renewable and alternative energy over the next three decades.

The service issued a solicitation for indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts last week as part of its efforts to go green.

The Army would only buy the energy that is produced under the contracts. The contractors would retain ownership of the plants, and would be responsible for designing, financing and building them. The plants could either be on private land or on Army property.

The solicitation says the Army is required to produce or procure at least 25 percent of its facilities’ energy needs from renewable resources by 2025. The Army’s Net Zero Energy initiative is also pushing its installations to produce more energy than they consume, and emphasizing the use of renewable and alternative fuel sources.

Court: Bids known to be too low are false claims

Contractors who knowingly bid unrealistically low prices on contracts could face federal lawsuits, according to an appellate court ruling.

The ruling is from a case filed by a former Lockheed Martin employee, Nyle Hooper, who claimed the company knowingly underbid on an Air Force contract to manage the hardware and software supporting space launch operations.

Lockheed proposed the work would cost $432.7 million, according to court documents. It was paid more than $900 million.

Under the False Claims Act, individuals can file suit on behalf of the government against people or companies that allegedly file false claims for government funds.

The U.S. District Court for Central California ruled that there was insufficient evidence to determine if Lockheed Martin intended to deceive the government. Hooper appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court said in its Aug. 2 ruling on Hooper v. Lockheed Martin that prosecutors do not need to prove intent to deceive but to prove that a company knowingly submitted a low bid that could not be achieved.

False claims include bid proposals that contractors know they cannot meet, according to the court.

Legal experts say, however, that proving companies knowingly submit low prices they cannot deliver is difficult because proposals are estimates.

“If this case stands, and if its theory is adopted by other courts of appeals, more of these [whistle-blower-] or government-initiated False Claims Act cases will have to go to trial on the factual questions of whether estimates are ‘false’ and whether low bids are ‘fraudulent,’” said Alan Chvotkin, executive counsel for the Professional Services Council trade association. “Those questions have never been asked before — which makes this case all the more important.”

O’Reilly to be replaced as missile agency chief

President Obama nominated the replacement for an Army general who headed the Missile Defense Agency after it became public that the general bullied and berated subordinates.

Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, who headed the organization since 2008, is to be replaced by Navy Rear Adm. (lower half) James Syring.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the nomination of Syring for appointment to the rank of vice admiral and for assignment as the director of the Missile Defense Agency at Fort Belvoir, Va., in a news release last week.

Syring is currently program executive officer for Integrated Warfare Systems in Washington.

According to a report completed by the Defense Department’s inspector general’s office in May and made public last month, O’Reilly “engaged in a leadership style that was inconsistent with standards of senior Army leaders.”

Groups urge continuation of clearance reports

Open-government groups and other organizations are urging Congress to continue requiring an annual report on the number of security clearance holders.

The Senate version of the 2013 intelligence authorization bill, which won intelligence committee approval last month and is awaiting action by the full Senate, would repeal that requirement.

“In the two years that the report has been produced, it has dramatically altered our conception of the size and scale of the personnel security clearance system,” the Federation of American Scientists and other groups said in an Aug. 7 letter to the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

The most recent clearance report, released last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, showed that almost 4.9 million government employees and contractors held clearances last year.

New law requires details on sequestration cuts

The White House has a month to explain how it will handle across-the-board budget cuts set to take effect early next year, under legislation President Obama signed last week.

The new law requires the administration to detail reductions down to the program, project and activity level. The cuts, known as sequestration, will slash about $109 billion from next year’s discretionary spending starting Jan. 2 unless lawmakers and the White House agree on a long-term deficit reduction plan.

In congressional testimony two weeks ago, acting OMB Director Jeffrey Zients told lawmakers that sequestration would likely mean a 10 percent cut for discretionary defense spending and an 8 percent reduction for nondefense spending. The effects would likely include hiring freezes and furloughs at the Defense Department, FBI and other agencies.

More alternative-fuel vehicles in federal fleet

The size of the government’s vehicle fleet has grown, but more of those vehicles run on alternative fuel such as ethanol or batteries, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Overall, the fleet has grown from about 420,000 vehicles in fiscal 2005 to about 449,000 in fiscal 2011. While 14 percent of the vehicles ran on alternative fuel in 2005, 33 percent do so today, according to GAO. The figures exclude Postal Service vehicles and combat vehicles.

The president in May 2011 ordered agencies to reduce oil imports by eliminating nonessential vehicles. While the overall fleet is larger, eight of the 24 agencies with the largest fleets reduced their fleet sizes by at least 2 percent, GAO found.

The Navy had the largest percentage decrease, 17 percent, from 44,969 vehicles in 2005 to 37,518 in 2011.

Justice IG adds ombudsman

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is adding a whistle-blower ombudsman position to his office to better support people who report wasteful government spending and mismanagement.

Robert Storch, a federal prosecutor, is the new counselor to the inspector general. He will educate Justice Department employees about the role and importance of whistle-blowers, and about their legal rights and protections against retaliation, according to a news release.

Storch will also ensure that whistle-blower complaints are reviewed by the IG’s office promptly, update whistle-blowers on the status and resolution of their complaints and monitor IG investigations of retaliation claims.

Storch will also work with other agencies with whistle-blower responsibilities, such as the Office of Special Counsel, and with nongovernmental whistle-blower advocacy groups.

Group: Don’t judge VA claims workers on speed

Concerned about the Veterans Affairs Department’s handling of disability claims, the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN, proposes an overhaul of how claims workers are evaluated, because the current work credit method “paradoxically prolongs the adjudication process by privileging speed over accuracy in initial claim determinations,” the group said in a recent written statement to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“By measuring employee productivity strictly by the number of cases processed, VA offers reviewers an incentive to take any shortcut necessary to clear their desks of pending claims.”

VA is working on new training methods to cut mistakes while also increasing processing speed.

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