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News Briefs: Oct. 1, 2012

Sep. 30, 2012 - 03:27PM   |  
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IG to release report on VA conferences

The Veterans Affairs Department’s Office of Inspector General has finished its investigation into alleged illegal gifts and lavish spending at two pricey conferences last summer.

The OIG said a report into the $5.2 million human resources training conferences in Orlando, Fla., will be released Oct. 1.

VA was rocked last month by the revelation of the OIG’s investigation, which some lawmakers compared with the General Services Administration’s infamous conference scandal involving excessive spending and parties. The OIG briefed lawmakers in August on its preliminary findings.

Congressional sources told Federal Times that the OIG is investigating allegations that VA employees who organized the conferences illegally accepted gifts from hotels they were scouting. Those alleged gifts may have included free rides in helicopters and a stretch limo, lodging, food, alcohol, concert tickets, spa treatments and gift baskets.

The IG also told lawmakers that it identified roughly $200,000 in questionable spending.

Congress delays posting of execs’ finances

Congress gave final approval late last week to a bill delaying the online posting of thousands of senior federal employees’ personal financial disclosure reports until early December.

Under the legislation, which now goes to President Obama for his signature, the postings would be delayed until Dec. 8, according to a spokeswoman for its sponsor, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. The bill would also direct the National Academy of Public Administration to study the potential risks — both to national security and to the safety of affected federal employees and military officers — of putting the annual disclosure reports on the Internet.

The Senate approved the measure Sept. 22.

The online posting requirement is part of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which Obama signed in April. It was to take effect Sept. 30, but — in response to a lawsuit filed by the Senior Executives Association and other plaintiffs — a federal judge recently issued an injunction barring implementation until Oct. 31.

Earlier this year, more than a dozen former national security officials warned that online posting could threaten “the personal safety and financial security” of career employees.

USPS again defaults on health care payment

For the second time in two months, the U.S. Postal Service has defaulted on a legally required payment into a fund for future retiree health care benefits.

The $5.6 billion payment was due Sept. 30. USPS executives, who had long acknowledged that they lacked the money to cover it, again stressed last week that normal operations would not be affected.

“We will continue to deliver the mail and pay our suppliers,” spokesman Dave Partenheimer said in a statement, adding that benefits for current employees and retirees will also remain untouched.

The payment for fiscal 2012 is required under the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act as part of a plan to ensure adequate funding for future retirees’ health care; in August, the Postal Service failed to make the $5.5 billion installment for fiscal 2011. That payment was originally due in September 2011, but Congress postponed it.

Lawmakers have declined to grant further delays, but remain deadlocked on how to address the Postal Service’s fiscal problems.

Booz Allen wins $9.9M DISA contract

The Defense Information Systems Agency awarded a contract last month that will enable more defense contractors to share cyber threat data with the Defense Department.

DISA awarded a $9.9 million contract to Booz Allen Hamilton to continue development of the Defense Industrial Base Network systems and to ensure the tool can support more contractors in its information-sharing program, according to a notice on FedBizOpps. gov last week.

The program, called the Defense Industrial Base Cyber Security and Information Assurance program, began as a pilot in 2011 with some 20 volunteering companies. DoD expects the program will enable more than 2,650 defense contractors to exchange classified and unclassified cyber information with the government.

According to DISA, Booz Allen is the only contractor capable of doing the work. The contract has a base period of nine months and a three-month option.

Agencies owe $14 million in back payroll taxes

Agencies owe millions of dollars in back payroll taxes, according to a new audit by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.

While agencies are exempt from federal income taxes, they are still supposed to collect employees’ Social Security and Medicare taxes and turn the money over to the Internal Revenue Service, according to an IG spokeswoman. As of the end of last year, however, 70 agencies were about $14 million in arrears. The names of the delinquent agencies were redacted from the report.

The report did not detail the reasons for the delinquencies, but concluded that the IRS has still not fully developed procedures to resolve such overdue agency accounts.

IG faults GSA effort to digitize contract files

The General Services Administration’s plan to digitize all of its contract files ended up wasting time and money, a new report from the agency’s inspector general says.

GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service started digitizing its schedule contract files in March 2010. It took more than a year to realize that scanning every document was not feasible, and FAS ultimately decided to scan only documents related to the most recent year, the Sept. 26 report said.

The Office of IT Schedule Programs also wasted resources by paying a contractor nearly $356,000 to ensure that the electronic files matched the paper files, a job that should have been performed by government employees, the IG said.

The IT office has held more than a dozen training sessions with staff to speed up the transfer of paper records to the electronic system, Mary Davie, acting FAS commissioner, said in a Sept. 17 response to the IG. As of September, about 40 percent of the contract files had been digitized, she said.

FBI lab reducescase backlog

The FBI has drastically reduced its backlog of forensic DNA cases over the past two years, according to a recent inspector general report.

In March 2010, the FBI Laboratory’s Nuclear DNA Unit, which analyzes blood, bodily fluids and other biological evidence collected at crime scenes, had a backlog of 3,211 cases, according to a September report by the Justice Department’s inspector general. By automating and streamlining its DNA processing and increasing personnel, the unit reduced that number to 403 cases as of March 2012.

However, another unit that analyzes evidence from hair, bones and teeth still has a backlog. The backlog decreased from 489 to 293 over the same period, but only because the unit revised how it calculates its backlog and changed its policy for accepting cases.

GSA approves use of new energy-saving technologies

The General Services Administration has approved two new energy-saving technologies for use in federal buildings, according to an agency release last week.

The agency tested responsive lighting stations and advanced power strips as part of its “green proving ground” project, which tests emerging technologies for federal use.

Responsive lighting stations and advanced power strips can be programmed to reduce power use at certain times of the day or to turn off after inactivity.

GSA said the technologies were able to reduce energy use at workstations by up to 63 percent over standard technologies.

Trade group has advice for DoD ‘better buying’

The Professional Services Council trade association is recommending the Defense Department consider three actions under its Better Buying Power 2.0 initiative to cut costs.

PSC President Stan Soloway asked Frank Kendall, DoD undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, in a Sept. 26 letter to:

• Lift the three-year limit on single-award contracts. Some services that require or could benefit from technology, professional development and other investments need more than three years to produce results, Soloway said.

• Limit the use of lowest-price, technically acceptable vendor selections to simple, commoditized services, not complex, technical services.

• Base contractors’ profit margins on the work done and risk assumed by the contractor. Agencies are “arbitrarily and presumptively” capping profits on cost-reimbursement contracts, Soloway said.

Agencies gain authority to fight human trafficking

President Obama signed an order last week giving agencies authority to investigate, suspend and debar contractors for human trafficking.

Agencies rely on contractors to self-police and report human trafficking activity to contracting officers. Investigations by government watchdogs such as the Project on Government Oversight and the Commission on Wartime Contracting have found recurrent human trafficking problems by “labor brokers” or subcontractors of war-zone contractors.

“As the largest single purchaser of goods and services in the world, the United States government bears a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not contribute to trafficking in persons,” Obama said in the executive order.

The order will take effect in six months.

Union urges increased staffing at federal prisons

A recent Government Accountability Office report shows the need to beef up the federal prisons workforce, leaders of a union representing prison employees said last week.

GAO found that the inmate-to-staff ratio increased by more than a third from 1997 through last year, while prison overcrowding “negatively affects” inmates and workers through increased use of double- and triple-bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, and fewer meaningful work opportunities.

The findings confirm that overcrowding “threatens the safety and security of prison facilities and the staff who work in them,” said Dale Deshotel, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals.

As of the end of last year, the Bureau of Prisons had about 38,000 employees; AFGE wants the agency to add more than 6,000 to keep up with the growth in inmate population.

Report: Scale back JPSS satellite effort

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should delete some climate sensors from its next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite program and streamline its management to save money, an independent report said.

The report, released Sept. 21, said the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) should not be responsible for flying two climate-change instruments: the Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System sensor and the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor.

The report, chaired by former Lockheed Martin executive Thomas Young, said these two sensors should be part of a separate NOAA program or transferred to NASA.

David Titley, NOAA’s deputy undersecretary for operations, said in an interview the agency is “looking at if we simplify the JPSS program to be basically a weather-only mission.”

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