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News Briefs: Sept. 17

Sep. 16, 2012 - 03:15PM   |  
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House passes bill to undo sequester

The House last week passed a bill that aims to avoid steep defense budget cuts next year, but it is unlikely to come up for a vote in the Senate.

The National Security and Job Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., would require President Obama to come up with a plan to replace the defense portion of sequestration budget cuts, now scheduled to kick in Jan. 2 unless lawmakers approve a $1.2 trillion debt reduction package. The bill would replace those defense cuts, in part, by cutting $19 billion from discretionary spending accounts.

But the Obama administration threatened to veto the bill. In a statement last week, the White House said the bill “fails the test of fairness and shared responsibility” and would result in destructive cuts to education, research, infrastructure and Medicare.

Lawmakers decry nuclear facility break-in

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers is calling for President Obama to address a July security lapse that allowed three intruders to break into the Energy Department’s Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn..

Reps. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., chairman and ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees Energy Department national security programs, said in a Sept. 13 letter that the security breach is an “unprecedented failure” and that the lapse may not be limited to the uranium processing facility.

The intruders tripped alarms, but a security guard who was an Energy Department contractor did not immediately respond to the scene, and when he did, he did not draw a weapon and permitted the intruders to roam the area and retrieve items from their backpacks, according to an inspector general report earlier this month.

One video camera covering the area had not been working for six months, and contractor employees at the site said security patrols had been cut because of budget pressure, according to the report.

“Lapses at every level in terms of process, personnel and accountability could have allowed a disaster,” the lawmakers wrote.

Postal Service headed for another default

The U.S. Postal Service is headed for another default on a legally required payment for future retiree health care as Congress remains deadlocked over the terms of an overhaul of the money-losing mail carrier. The $5.6 billion installment for fiscal 2012 is due Sept. 30, but the Postal Service lacks the cash to cover it, spokesman Dave Partenheimer reiterated last week.

The default would come less than two months after the Postal Service missed a separate $5.5 billion payment originally due in September 2011. Lawmakers eventually pushed that deadline back to early August, but then refused to grant another extension.

In a Sept. 7 letter, House oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., urged the White House to include some short-term relief in the continuing spending resolution the House passed last week, but the bill thus far contains no such provision.

In the letter, Issa said it is unlikely that the House and Senate will agree on a comprehensive postal fix before the November elections, but added that a planned lame-duck session “will provide a much greater window of opportunity to enact legislation to restore the Postal Service to solvency.”

Defense contractor pays $1 million settlement

Defense contractor Paragon Dynamics Inc. has agreed to pay $1.15 million to settle allegations that it improperly obtained bid and proposal information for National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) contracts, federal prosecutors announced last week.

Paragon Dynamics, a software research and development firm based in Aurora, Colo., allegedly obtained bid and proposal information from a competitor, Raytheon, in fiscal 2009, while Raytheon was competing on NRO contracts, the U.S. Attorney for Colorado said in the news release.

A Paragon Dynamics employee allegedly used his access to a Raytheon facility in Aurora to obtain entire drafts of Raytheon’s proposals for two separate contracts. The employee allegedly faxed part of a proposal to Paragon Dynamics’ president, who sent the information to another corporation that Paragon Dynamics was teaming with in a competition to win the NRO contract, according to the government’s claims.

As part of the settlement, NRO’s inspector general reached a corporate integrity agreement with Paragon Dynamics, according to the news release.

Justice lags in approving security clearances

The Justice Department is failing to meet a legally required timetable for deciding whether to issue or renew security clearances, the agency’s inspector general reported last week.

Under the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, agencies are supposed to complete 90 percent of clearance reviews within 60 days. The Justice Department hit that target just 31 percent of the time, the IG said in the report, which encompassed about 5,200 cases during the period from October 2009 through December 2010.

Of the remainder, most were handled within 180 days, but 29 took longer than a year.

DHS may require buys on department contracts

The Department of Homeland Security could soon require its contracting officers to use its strategic sourcing contracts for procurements, a new report says.

DHS has 42 such contracts for goods and services ranging from ammunition to engineering services, with several more under development, according to a Sept. 10 report from the Government Accountability Office.

Spending on DHS’ strategic sourcing vehicles increased to almost $3 billion last year, but that represents only about 20 percent of the agency’s $14 billion in procurement spending for the year, the report said.

Currently, contracting officers must consider departmentwide contracts first when making a procurement, but they are not required to use them, the report said. The chief procurement officer must approve contracting officers’ reasons for deciding not to use a departmentwide contract, the report said.

DHS has drafted, but not yet issued, a management directive that would make use of strategic sourcing contract vehicles mandatory with exceptions, the report said.

Navy cancels plan for enhanced-use lease

The Navy is abandoning its plans to sign an enhanced-use lease to build offices and industrial facilities at Saufley Field near Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.

An enhanced-use lease is a form of alternative financing where a private company pays for renovations or construction in exchange for use of government land.

Delays in funding the relocation of employees from Saufley Field led the Navy to terminate its negotiations with Saufley Group LLC, according to a Navy news release.

ICE employee accused of harboring illegal immigrants

A federal immigration-enforcement employee has been arrested and accused of using her home to stash illegal immigrants smuggled across the border.

Stella Peterson was arrested Aug. 31 after three illegal immigrants were found in her Douglas, Ariz., home, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court. She is charged with harboring illegal aliens for profit, according to court records.

Her son, Anthony Peterson, was also arrested.

Stella Peterson is an investigative assistant assigned to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in Douglas, said Amber Cargile, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Peterson is on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation and criminal charges, Cargile said.

According to the complaint, Peterson said she knew her son had been using the house to harbor illegal immigrants. She admitted that illegal immigrants had been smuggled out of her home at least four times. She also admitted that she had provided material assistance to the illegal immigrants.

IRS pays $104 million award to whistle-blower

The Internal Revenue Service awarded $104 million to whistle-blower Bradley Birkenfeld, whose reports of an illegal offshore banking scheme by Swiss bank UBS helped the government recover billions of dollars in back taxes, fines and penalties, the National Whistleblowers Center announced last week.

The award shows that the process for reporting illegal activities works and that whistle-blowers will be heard and protected, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement.

“An award of $104 million is obviously a great deal of money, but billions of dollars in taxes owed will be collected that otherwise would not have been paid as a result of the whistleblower information,” said Grassley, who pushed whistle-blower legislation in 2006.

The award also rectifies the “chilling effect” on whistle-blowing that the Justice Department caused when it prosecuted Birkenfeld for his role in helping clients evade U.S. taxes, Stephen Kohn, one of Birkenfeld’s attorneys and executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said in a statement. Birkenfeld was sentenced to 40 months in jail in August 2009.

UBS paid a $780 million fine and admitted to helping U.S. taxpayers hide accounts from the IRS in 2009, according to information from the Justice Department.

As part of an agreement with Justice, UBS provided the government with information on 4,450 U.S. customers who were believed to have violated U.S. law.

Soon after UBS’ settlement, the IRS created a voluntary disclosure program for taxpayers who had previously undisclosed foreign bank accounts. More than 35,000 taxpayers have since come forward. The voluntary disclosures have led to the collection of more than $5 billion in back taxes, fines and penalties, Kohn said.

NPR: Millions in rental deals at Los Angeles VA

The Veterans Affairs Department’s Los Angeles Medical Center has taken in at least $28 million over 12 years by renting out parts of its 387-acre campus for private use, according to a National Public Radio report last week.

While VA is prohibited from leasing its land to private interests, it is able to “share” parcels if it helps meet its medical goals. Under such sharing agreements, the medical center allowed on its campus a UCLA baseball stadium, an athletic complex for a private school and parking lots for rental vehicles, according to NPR.

In a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of 11 disabled veterans, the American Civil Liberties Union said VA has profited from these arrangements even as it failed to meet the needs of homeless and disabled veterans by allowing facilities to be closed or repurposed, according to court documents reviewed by Federal Times.

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