Cost And Accounting, DCAA Relations, Running Your Business

Unapproved Subcontractors — Recent ASBCA Ruling

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We are going to spend some time on a recent Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA) Technology Systems, Inc. (ASBCA 59577). The case addresses several government contracting concerns and breaks almost evenly between favoring the contractor and favoring the government (DCAA). The ruling is sixty-one pages and mainly focuses on if DCAA can subsequently change their mind (in this case the answer was yes with a dissenting opinion)

A quick reminder that I am not an attorney and this article represents my thoughts and is not a legal opinion of any sort. It is interesting to note that the owner of Technology Systems was not an attorney either but represented himself and managed to beat the government in several key areas. I stand in admiration but not a practice I would recommend.

The case covers at least nine areas in my mind worth a few moments discussion:

  1. Supporting Material Overhead rate
  2. DCAA Auditor independence
  3. DCAA’s right to change their mind in subsequent audits
  4. Tax vs. Book on depreciation issues
  5. Bonuses
  6. Accrued Costs crossing fiscal year
  7. Unapproved subcontractors
  8. An excellent example of DCAA properly developing findings.
  9. Documenting consultants work product

I am going to start with number 7 – “Unapproved subcontractors”. The relevant section of the FAR 52.244-2 “Subcontracts”. This one the government won and I will let the decision speak for itself and then add a few of my thoughts:

The “Subcontracts” clause, included in all four contracts, generally requires that prime contractors that do not have an approved purchasing system must obtain the CO’s written consent to enter into cost-reimbursement, time-and-materials or labor-hour subcontracts. FAR 52.244-2( d)(l) (1988, 1998). TSI did not have an approved purchasing system (which is not atypical for a contractor of its size (tr. 2/55, 65)) and, as a result, was required by the contract to obtain approval to enter into subcontracts from the CO (tr. 2/55). This, it did not do for the time-and-materials subcontracts questioned by the ACO (R4, tab 16 at 261-62, tab 6(a) at 79-80; tr. 1/130-31, 2/58). Mr. Fletcher testified on TSI’s behalf that it generally did not seek pre-approval for its actions because it had found it difficult to contact the ACO (tr. 2/135-36).

After DCAA identified the subcontracts that had not received prior approval and recommended their complete disapproval, ACO Cuellar requested that it attempt a post hoc justification of their prices (tr. 11250-51, 271 ). She allowed the cost for one of the questioned subcontracts because DCAA was able to perform an analysis that demonstrated the prices to be fair and reasonable (id., tr. 1/269). For the others, however, DCAA and the ACO felt themselves unable to perform such a post hoc justification of the costs with the information provided (tr. 11271-73 ). These costs were in the amount of $2,661 under contract 0236 (R4, tab 16 at 261) and $28,568 under contract 0340 (id. at 262).

In December 2008, after it became clear that approval of subcontracting costs would be an issue in the audit, Mr. Benton reached out to DCMA ACO, then, Ms. Sandee Murray, and requested retroactive approval of some the subcontract awards (R4, tab 6(f)). There was no apparent government response to this letter, and, in 2014, Mr. Benton reached out to a number of people seeking support for the subcontract costs. The record includes emails from Mr. Timothy Devin, Mr. Adam Cascioli (project officer for contract 0340), and Mr. Brian Almquist (the contracting officer’s technical representative (COTR)) (app. supp. R4, tab 156, at 3-4, tab 157 at 1-2). All of these email correspondences indicate that the subcontracts “were in support of the [statement of work]” (e.g., app. supp. R4, tab 157 at 1), but none of them venture to provide an opinion regarding the reasonableness of the prices charged (see tr. 2/51-52). We have no reason to doubt that the subcontract prices were allocable to the contract, and so find here, but there is no evidence elsewhere in the record with respect to the reasonableness of the subcontract charges, except the earlier statement that the ACO was able to independently confirm the reasonableness of the cost of one subcontract (tr. 11269).

It appears that both DCMA and DCAA worked with the contractor to approve these costs by working on a retroactive approval of the subcontractors, with some success. The efforts stalled where they were unable to determine the pricing was fair. Of course if the contractor had built a pricing case before entering into the subcontract, this might have worked.

Often we can argue and win cost arguments with DCAA based on the ability to clearly demonstrate the work was done (and we will see examples of this later in this same case). These efforts fail in the face of a specific contractual or FAR requirement. You will notice the FAR even bends over backwards and allows the ACO to specifically exempt identified subcontracts from this clause; however, barring this, the clause stands and the approval is needed.

Other lessons:

  • There is a bit of a break for fixed price subcontracts if they are under the simplified acquisition threshold (I believe the current number is $150,000 but it changes) or 5% of the total estimated price of the contract. I encourage clients to utilize fixed price subcontracts where possible but to always build a price case.
  • It has to be the ACO that the contractor notifies, not the government program officer, not the branch or agency contracting officer (unless this person is the ACO). In my experience, I have always found DCMA accessible.
  • Most small business contractors have not been around long enough to remember the days when small business subcontracting regulatory environment allowed for the exploitation of small business members by major contractors acting as subcontractors. Much of the current regulation arose out of those issues. In addition, the government want to make sure the pricing is fair. Build a price case. To simplify what can be a bit of a complicated process: get three bids, or create a white paper showing why the subcontractor is the only available resource, or create a white paper supporting the subcontractor’s pricing.

 

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Accounting System, Cost And Accounting, DCAA Relations, Running Your Business

Some of Those Pesky Questions Surrounding Timekeeping

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With DCAA’s announced return to audit functions other than incurred cost proposals (Annual Report of Congress 2015), contractors need to dust off those policies and procedures and ask themselves a couple of questions. Let us start with labor, timekeeping, and payroll:

How do you control where staff are allowed to charge their time?

DCAA holds to the belief that contractors should authorize employees to on a project and restrict their ability to charge without authorization. Implicit in this is the concern that if Jane, assigned to work on Project A, does not have anything to do on project A, the government does not believe she should wander over to Project B and lend a hand without someone planning for this.

How do you address idle time?

There can be a couple of subtle levels to this question. The first level is literal; how do you address idle time. The correct answer is by charging overhead or G&A.

The second level is: when is idle time too much? When does it become unreasonable and thus DCAA might see the idle time as unallowable?

The old joke about auditors comes to mind – “Definition of an auditor: someone who shows up after the battle and bayonets the wounded”.

I once had a 622% overhead rate approved by the government based on idle time, but not without a fairly extensive fight with the DCAA auditor. The rate arose out of five engineers charging overhead 100% of their time for a few months. The story that won the approval actually involved the Princess of Wales and robots. How could you not win with such a cast? We attributed the idle time to a conflict between a DOD agency and an Army field commander. First, DOD sent these engineers into a foreign area as a perfect place to test their emerging technology. When they got there, the Army field commander informed them that the location was not a laboratory but a combat zone and wanted to know what the heck the paratroopers were going to do with the civilian engineers. DCAA then raised the allegation that the contractors turned the time into a vacation while DOD hashed it out as The engineers sat around charging overhead until the field commander finally sent them home.

I told the DCAA auditor, with a straight face, that I believed the engineers should have charged the project direct and not overhead; but since it was a single contract division it did not really matter.

The point is that idle time is often a reality of government contracting and is not always the contractor’s fault. Addressing idle capacity often calls for hard decisions and the contractor needs to prepare to defend those decisions when tax dollars are involved.

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GAO Ruling Supports GSA Decision that Favors DCAA Accounting System Audits Over Private Firm Audits

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A recent GSA RFP awarded 9.15%  (7,600 out of 83,100 points) of possible RFP scoring points for approved accounting and purchasing systems, systems approved by DCAA or another government agency. The approval of the critical systems by private accounting firms did not receive any points.

Evolver and AFSC challenge the agency’s basis for assigning certain points.  Specifically, both Evolver and AFSC challenge the RFP provision that, in order to be awarded 5,500 points for an “audited/adequate cost accounting system,” an offeror’s proposal must include proof of a federally audited and approved accounting system.  The firms maintain that this requirement is overly restrictive of competition, as there are independent public accounting firms that can verify the adequacy of an offeror’s accounting system for federal contracts.  The firms further argue that proof of an acceptable system should not be required with proposal submission; rather, proof should be provided only at the time the government actually requires the service for which the certification is necessary.”

Here is GAO ruling:

“Under these circumstances, where the agency can reasonably anticipate that DOD will be the prime user of the Alliant 2 GWAC, and where DOD does not accept third party certification of a contractor’s cost accounting system, we find nothing improper about the solicitation’s provision that gives an evaluation preference to firms that have a federally audited and approved accounting system.”

Now here is the troubling part of the ruling:

 “In this regard, the agency explains that allowing firms to accrue points in this manner helps to provide a GWAC where successful offerors have experience in government contracting.  In addition, successful offerors will be able to perform cost-reimbursement task orders for DOD from the first day the GWAC is awarded, and procuring agencies issuing task orders under the GWAC will not have to waste time and resources while vendors subsequently obtain an audited and approved system.  Id.  Given this explanation by the agency, we find nothing improper about the solicitation’s approach of awarding points to offerors that have proof of an audited system at the time of contract award.” (emphasis added).

Gee, wouldn’t it be wonderful if a contractor could just call DCAA and schedule an accounting system audit?

http://www.gao.gov/products/B-413559.2,B-413559.8#mt=e-report

 

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DOD Prohibits Funding of Contractors with Certain Restrictive Confidentiality Agreements

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DOD issues a class deviation from the FAR that addresses employee confidentiality agreements. If DOD determines that such an agreement can restrict an employee’s ability to report waste or fraud, DOD can yank the contractor’s funding.

As usual, the joy will be in the interpretation of the word ‘restricting’. Good financial ethics, as modeled in my book, require a concerned employee to report up the chain of command. Could telling someone else in the company before calling the government be considered ‘restrictive’?

http://www.acq.osd.mil/dpap/policy/policyvault/USA004514-16-DPAP.pdf

 

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Running Your Business

The Most Important Business Rule You Will Ever Learn: The House is White on this Side

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In Robert Heinlein’s future world found in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) it appears the CPA profession evolved a new profession called Fair Witnesses.

In a world envisioned back in 1961, the future world would allow anyone to fake anything: documents, audio recordings, video, anything. Sound a bit prophetic, does it not?  In such a world, people with perfect recall were trained to attest to exactly how the original document, conversation, event occurred. These individuals formed a profession called Fair Witnesses.

In the book, a character named Jubal is explaining to another character Jill, the importance of a Fair Witness. Jill states that she has never met one, not realizing that one of the ladies she is socializing at Jubal’s house is a Fair Witness. The conversation goes as follows:

 

Anne was on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, “That house on the hilltop—can you see what color they’ve painted it?”

Anne looked, then answered, “It’s white on this side.”

Jubal went on to Jill, “You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself . . . unless she went there and looked—and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.”

“Anne is a Fair Witness?”

“Graduate, unlimited license, admitted to testify before the High Court. Sometime ask her why she gave up public practice. But don’t plan anything else that day—the wench will recite the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which takes time.

“It’s white on this side”. “The house is white on this side.”

My children, friends, staff, and clients hear me express these words time and time again. Never assume the house is white on the other side.

  • Never assume that they credited cash on the other side of the entry
  • Never assume what the regulation says
  • Never assume the lady wishes to talk to you
  • Never assume that the professional is professional
  • Never assume that Paul or Jane know what they are talking about.

 

And so on and so on.

Most skeptics assume something is wrong until it is proven right. I am talking about something a little more intelligent, a little subtler.  I am talking about the eternal and constant search for the truth, for the facts, and a healthy understanding of what we think or assume.

  • Find the other side of the entry
  • Look at the regulation
  • Ask the lady if you are bothering her
  • Get a second opinion or more information about the individual giving you the first opinion
  • Keep an open mind about what Paul or Jane said and form your own opinion before you act.

The House is White on This Side.

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Accounting System, Cost And Accounting, DCAA Relations, Incurred Cost Proposals, Running Your Business

Really? Meals and Entertainment Expenses

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While working on another project this morning, I recalled that twice in the last year; two separate DCAA auditors working thousands of miles apart, asked why the contractor had separate accounts for Meals and Entertainment in their Chart of Accounts.

Enough said?

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Part Two – Early Childhood or “How DCAA, Contractor, and Consultant Can Ruin an Audit”: Souring the Milk

When the contractor bid on the Air Force contract they had no written policies and procedures, utilized a popular accounting software package, and operated with an alphabetized chart of accounts (not really, but that is what their outside tax CPA claimed). There was an extensive inventory system that ran through cost of goods sold directly (no capitalized inventory).

Back in 2011, a DCAA audit of an accounting system focused, in theory, on two parts: the mechanics of the contractor’s accounting department (usually audited by field work) and the contractor’s policies and procedures (usually provided to DCAA ahead of the fieldwork). Often, DCAA looked at the proposed rates as part of the accounting system audit, effectively combing two audits into one.

Sometimes DCAA gave the impression that the policies and procedures were more of a checkbox than anything else. Often DCAA confirmed policies and procedures during the fieldwork. You would walk through an area such as invoicing, and DCAA would ask if this was reflected in your policies and procedures. You answered yes and moved on to the next subject.

Thus, it was possible to buy a set of policies and procedures, stamp your name on them, and send them to DCAA without realizing that the purchased policies and procedures did not relate to your business and operations at all and sometimes, just sometimes, get away with this.

When our contractor heard that DCAA was on the way, they hired a consulting firm and the consultant recommend they purchase the canned policies and procedures from still another consultant (still not me, (these cost over five times what mine cost)).

Contractor purchased said policies and procedures, but their name on them, and sent them into DCAA. Of course the purchased set of policies and procedures were geared toward a construction company, not a company developing scientific instruments.

The next recommendation the consultant made was based on the conclusion that the contractor’s accounting software set up was adequate. That it was possible to identify direct and indirect costs, claimed and unclaimed costs, plus government and commercial costs. All of the areas identified in the SF 1408 could be demonstrated and defended. The consultant decided on three indirect pools, Fringe, Overhead, and G&A. The consultant’s analysis indicated that the contractor spent $19.43 in indirect costs for every $13.05 in direct costs. The consultant prepared an incurred cost submission, using DCAA’s current ICE model, reflecting these conclusions.

Policies and procedures in place, accounting system compliant with the SF 1408, incurred cost proposals prepared and sent, and rates determined. The contractor felt ready for a DCAA audit.

DCAA came out in the late spring of 2011 and reached several immediate conclusions they promptly passed on to the contractor:

  • The Policies and Procedures provided by the contractor (purchased on recommendation of the consultant) not only had very little to do with the business operations of the contractor but those few areas, such as timekeeping, were not implemented or followed. For example, the policies called for supervisor approval on all timesheets while in practice all of the timesheets went straight to the bookkeeper for entry and processing.
  • The rates and rate structure found in the contractor’s incurred cost submission could not be replicated or tied to the contractor’s actual books of records. Direct and Indirect costs were confused and merged in several accounts. For example, the incurred cost submission reported a little over $90,000 in direct labor while the contractor’s trial balance reported the amount at about $23,000. The contractor and the consultant could not defend either number and there was some evidence the amount was closer to $600,000. Such problems were found throughout the incurred cost submission and the trial balance. This was not an incurred cost submission audit (thank you, thank you, thank you) but DCAA had properly used the concurrent document to try and figure the simple issue of direct and indirect within the contractor’s books.

As DCAA’s questions seem to multiple and answers seemed to generate only further questions. In response to DCAA comments, the contractor began to make rapid changes during the audit that only made things worse. Specifically, all of the costs that DCAA questioned as unallowable were moved to an unallowable G&A account. I do not know if the consultant was aware of the changes.

DCAA poor reaction to the contractor’s preparation and subsequent results raised alarm with the contractor. The contractor felt that the situation was spiraling out of control. Before the contractor received the statement of proposed findings, they terminated their relationship with the current consultant and engaged me as a replacement.

I literally walked into the middle of a bad DCAA audit without any clear idea about what was going on. I was concerned about the relationship with the former consultant but did not make any immediate decisions about either the quality of the previous consultant’s work or the contractor. I focused more on what I figured, wrongly, was DCAA issues.

I will admit that I have a tendency to blame DCAA in such circumstances, especially during this timeframe. On occasion I had seen DCAA and contractors feed off each other as both tried to figure out just what was going on. I listened to the contractor’s legitimate concerns about DCAA’s claims on rental cars as a classical example of audit confusion.  I just figured the consultant had gotten stuck in the middle and I offered a chance for a reset.

As I looked at it, it became clear that DCAA had done a pretty good job. The proposed findings were actually developed and discussed fully with the contractor before any commitment to writing and there were several proposed findings, nine to be exact. There was some confusion in the proposed findings. For example, one finding confused G&A Base and G&A Pool. Two other findings appeared contradictory until one realized the books were contradictory.

All in all, DCAA proposed nine findings:

  • Inadequate Internal Controls Over Timekeeping
  • Inadequate Segregation of Duties Over Timekeeping
  • Fragmentation of the G&A Base Used To Allocate G&A Costs
  • Failure To Properly Segregate and Accumulate Direct and Indirect Costs
  • Failure To Calculate and Monitor Indirect Rates
  • Improper Recording of Direct Material Costs
  • Noncompliance With FAR 52.232-22(c) Limitation of Funds
  • Use of an Arbitrary Rate to Bill the Government for Indirect Costs
  • Inclusion of Unallowable G&A Costs in the G&A Base

All of the findings were constructed and supported out of references to the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), something the successor auditor failed to do. The last finding was a little confusing, I am sure the auditor meant “Pool” and not “Base”.

Number six, “Improper Recording of Direct Material Costs”, arose out of the contractor utilizing a complicated inventory system but then expensing everything through Cost of Goods Sold. The auditor raised FAR 31.201-2 (a) (3) and pointed to the GAAP Matching principle as the basis for the proposed finding.

Number four, “Failure To Properly Segregate and Accumulate Direct and Indirect Costs”, arose out of the fact that the contractor had hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs (over half a million in labor alone) marked in the job system as commercial contract work but booked to indirect accounts in the general ledger such as “G&A Labor”.

The third proposed finding, “Fragmentation of the G&A Base Used To Allocate G&A Costs”, arose out of the circumstances I described above where DCAA raised the issue early in the audit, the contractor made a change, and DCAA gigged the contractor on the change.

It started when the auditor asserted that the FAR required (and I later confirmed this assertion) that all rental cars had to be compact to be allowable. The contractor found this so unbelievable that the CFO decided to move all rental cars to unallowable G&A. This of course raised another issue and DCAA proposed a finding based on the change. It took me a while to work this through with the CFO. Yes, the auditor was wrong about the rental car position but the issue was now direct versus indirect. It is not just the direct cost of the rental car that is alleged to be unallowable but also the associated G&A costs. That is why the change the contractor made did not work. Since the auditor was careful to support all of the proposed findings with strong regulatory support, it was doubtful the auditor would actually propose a finding asserting that rental cars must be compact, but the auditor had no problem with objecting to the change and creating proposed finding number three.

The first two timekeeping proposed findings, “Inadequate Internal Controls Over Timekeeping” and “Inadequate Segregation of Duties Over Timekeeping” were pretty standard DCAA objections. One, anybody could charge anything. Two, the bookkeeper approved the timesheets.

Findings seven and nine (corrected), “Noncompliance With FAR 52.232-22(c) Limitation of Funds” and “Inclusion of Unallowable G&A Costs in the G&A Base” are pretty standard also. Nine related to using unclaimed costs to calculate the indirect rate for proposing billing rates. The reason why I believe the auditor confused the terms “base” and ‘pool’ is due to the simple fact that unallowable direct costs are required to be included in the G&A base but unallowable G&A costs must be excluded from the G&A pool.

The last two findings, five “Failure To Calculate and Monitor Indirect Rates” and eight “Use of an Arbitrary Rate to Bill the Government for Indirect Costs” relate to the easy conclusion reached by DCAA that the contractor did not employ an accounting system that allowed for consistent, supported, and even clear calculation of rates and management of the associated pools/bases.

How was the consultant involved? Much of this had the consultant’s thumbprints on it. Proposed findings five, eight, and nine arose out of the consultant’s own work and conclusions. The first two findings plus number seven are government contractor compliance 101 and should have been addressed before the audit. As to number four, which the contractor included in the incurred cost proposal with fractional modifications, I noticed problems when I first glanced at the contractor’s general ledger.  I wondered, along with DCAA, about an 18 to 1 ratio of G&A labor to direct labor. I did not even need to ask the contractor, I simply ran a job ledger and saw hundreds of thousands of dollars marked with active jobs but booked to G&A labor. DCAA apparently saw the same data.

You might argue about the matching (proposed finding six), but given the extent and support surrounding the other findings, it would be drowned in all of the valid DCAA arguments.

I can only report what I found and my subsequent experience with the contractor. I continued to work with the contractor years after the events described. They were dedicated, even to the point where they considered compliance their patriotic duty. They understood, committed to, and adopted my recommendations, even though new issues with DCAA arose over the next several years. The last recommendation of mine they finally adopted was to leave government contracting. They were losing money with cost sharing contracts (no fee) and if the government wanted their technology the government could buy it like everyone else.

Next – “Potty Training”

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