Watchdog raps DARPA over 'systemic contracting concerns'

DoDIG did not find fault with the substance of the contracts -- just how they were awarded

The U.S. agency known for funding cutting edge projects like highjacking autos by remote control and headless robotic mules hasn't been sticking to the rules when funding some of its blue-sky contracts.

Personnel at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, did not consistently adhere to the scientific review process and federal acquisition rules before awarding some of its contracts, the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Defense reported on Friday.

Although the DoDIG did not find anything wrong with the substance of the contracts it reviewed -- just on how they were awarded -- the auditors noted that failing to comply with federal rules opened up DARPA to potential risks down the road.

"Although we did not identify any contracts that DARPA personnel should not have awarded, DARPA may not be able to justify that personnel adequately substantiated proposal selections," the report said. "In addition, contracting personnel increased DARPA's contracting risks when issuing cost-reimbursement contracts."

To remedy the situation, the DoDIG recommended DARPA establish better controls to insure documentation for contracts was adequate, and to tighten up internal requirements for approving funding.

In the management section of the DoDIG report DARPA agreed to implement the recommendations of the auditors. Asked for further comment on the report, DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone said in an email, "We have nothing further to add at this time."

The DoDIG audit was partially primed by the Project On Government Oversight, a government watchdog group that complained of possible contract abuses at DARPA in 2011.

"The Inspector General's report points out a lot of systemic contracting concerns," POGO General Counsel Scott H. Amey said in an interview with CSOonline. "DARPA needs to improve its contracting system to make sure taxpayer dollars are not being wasted."

Although there were no disclosures in the report of waste, fraud or abuse by DARPA, there may still be some cause for concern. "It's a little scary that the agency isn't adhering to the contracting laws and regulations that are on the books," Amey said.

In addition to contracting irregularities, POGO has also raised issues of potential conflicts of interest at DARPA. In a letter to the DoDIG in the spring of 2011, POGO called for a probe into then-director Regina Dugan's continued financial and familial relationship with DARPA contractor RedXDefense.

"There was the appearance of a conflict of interest there," Amey explained. "It makes you wonder if the decisions that involve that company are merit-based or based on trying to please the boss."

With an audit and investigation into ethical practices at DARPA in progress, Dugan left the agency in March 2012A'A to take a position at Google with another old DARPA hand, Vinton Cerf, commonly referred to as the father of the Internet.

Dugan heads a special projects section at Motorola, which is owned by Google, where, among other things, she's working on new forms of biometrics, including tattoos and pills, to replace passwords.

Earlier this year, the DoDIG gave DARPA a good report card on ethical practices at the agency. "The DARPA ethics policies and program implementation were consistent with Federal Government conflict-of-interest mitigation standards, and the DARPA personnel we selected for review were properly trained and followed DARPA policies," the DoDIG reportA'A said.

"DARPA's ethics program appropriately mitigated the potential for conflicts-of-interest," it added.A'A

Read more about compliance in CSOonline's Compliance section.

This story, "Watchdog raps DARPA over 'systemic contracting concerns'" was originally published by CSO.

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