State’s Contracting in Ebola-Plagued Countries Under Scrutiny

State’s Contracting in Ebola-Plagued Countries Under Scrutiny

This story has been updated.

Whether the United States is convening an unprecedented summit with heads of state, responding to a terrifying Ebola epidemic, or working with governments to battle Boko Haram, its diplomatic relationships with African countries have perhaps never been more central to its foreign policy. That makes the latest audit published by the Office of the Inspector General (IG) of the State Department particularly worrisome.

Released this week, the new audit follows up on concerns raised in previous IG reports on shoddy contracting and grant oversight. It uncovers a number of troubling expenditures and questionable contracting practices in the Bureau of African Affairs, which awarded $359 million in contracts and $70 million in grants domestically from 2010 to 2012. The IG examined eight contracts deemed "high-risk and medium-risk," and eight "high-dollar-value grants" administered by the bureau.

Some highlights: In Ebola-devastated Sierra Leone, the African Affairs Bureau spent $83,295.20 on a generator and two fuel tanks that didn’t meet the contract’s specifications. In the same contract, the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone used $1.5 million worth of government-purchased equipment "for purposes other than for which the equipment was intended" — i.e., for "servic[ing] Embassy personnel’s personal vehicles as well as to perform maintenance on Embassy equipment." In fairness, the State Department accepted most of the IG’s recommendations — 21 of 22 — to fix problems revealed ("pending further action") in the report.

But a potentially big one remains — the African Affairs Bureau’s use of allegedly poorly qualified, under equipped officials to oversee the contracts themselves — people known as "site contractors." According to bureau officials, they can be either U.S. government employees or contractors. "[T]he difference between a site coordinator and a" government technical monitor, or GTM, "is that site coordinators do not accept goods or services or approve invoices whereas GTMs do," the audit explains. Coordinators can make recommendations to contracting officers, who then make the final call and sign off on invoices.

"None of the site coordinators had the combination of sufficient training or experience to perform GTM-like responsibilities," the IG reports. The report also notes that the contracting officer overseeing two contracts in Mauritania failed to delegate the administration and oversight of the contracts to an official with the proper, high-level certification. Instead, management of the contracts was handed off to a non-certified site coordinator.

"According to the site coordinator, she did not have any prior training on contracts or contract oversight," the report states. " In addition, the site coordinator stated that the [contracting officer] did not provide her with a copy of the contract, the contract modifications, or any other relevant information for 4 months." And because the coordinator wasn’t sufficiently trained, "she did not fully understand her role and responsibilities, and was not aware of how to oversee the contractor’s performance."

And there’s another glaring problem. According to the IG, State doesn’t have any policies outlining site coordinators’ roles, responsibilities, training, certification requirements, "or limitations." Because State doesn’t officially recognize them, the African Affairs Bureau’s use of them instead of government monitors allows it to circumvent federal contracting requirements.

The African Affairs Bureau, for its part, says it relied on coordinators because it was short-staffed and has high turnover, leaving it with inexperienced staff to conduct oversight. They also say that these coordinators can travel places where U.S. government officials can’t. But the IG found that coordinators are used in countries such as Mauritania and LIberia, both places that government officials are cleared to travel. 

The IG wants State to fix its contract-oversight processes and "discontinue" the use of site coordinators where possible. Although the African Affairs Bureau will "adjust its use of site coordinators" and clarify their responsibilities — namely, to make sure that these people aren’t undertaking specific governmental duties — it intends to continue using them.

"I’ve never heard about these site coordinators before, but the concept of using unqualified personnel to oversee contracts is pretty serious. It’s going to lead to fraud, waste, and abuse," said Neil Gordon of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

The other big takeaway, he adds, is that some or most of the coordinators apparently are contractors. "This raises conflict of interest concerns and the possibility of contractors performing inherently governmental functions, which is illegal," he added. In fact, as a previous IG audit found, third-party contractors were used as site coordinators and "performed inherently governmental functions." Depending on how pervasive this practice is, this is a question that’s bound to trigger future contracting headaches in the region.

On background, the State Department says that it does not recognize a special category of function called "site coordinators," and adds that improperly using a contractor for inherently governmental duties would be a policy violation, rather than a violation of the law.

The State Department also has existing guidance requiring consideration of conflict of interest issues in establishing contract administration, and guidance requiring an analysis of functions to determine if they are inherently governmental prior to being contracted.