Accounting System, Cost And Accounting, DCAA Relations, Incurred Cost Proposals

One Little Email and We Might be Talking a Different Case

The Armed Services Board of Contract Appeal is down again for the second time in the last several months. I will not let this attack on democracy (although I am sure the government has an excellent reason for the prolonged denial of access to this information) stop our discussion of the TSI case.

Back to the recent Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA) Technology Systems, Inc. (TSI) (ASBCA 59577 and the nine areas I believe are worth discussing:

  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

The scratched out areas were discussed in previous articles. Today, I am going to talk about DCAA’s right to change their mind in subsequent audits. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

 

DCAA’s Right to Change Their Mind

The disagreement between the ASBCA judges and too much of the 61-page opinion addresses the question of DCAA’s changing its mind from audit to audit and from auditor to auditor. To sum up, the two judges in the majority believe DCAA has a broad right to do so, while the minority judge does not.

I am not going to quote their respective arguments, which coincidently coincides with their website unavailability, because I believe this is a horrible case to address the issue.

If DCAA audits, or chooses not to audit, a subcontractor’s invoices in 2012 and sees nothing wrong; this does not prevent them from looking at the subcontractor’s new invoices in 2013 and deciding there is something wrong. All of the extensive legal arguments between the judges aside, the ability to look at costs fresh from year to year is simply common sense to me. This is not absolute but generally true.

One obvious area where DCAA must change its opinion is when there a change in law, regulation, or GAAP.

Does this infer that I believe DCAA is allowed to change their mind at any time and without any constraint? NO, IT DOES NOT. I just believe, despite the pages and pages dedicated to the issue, that this was not the case to explore DCAA’s mind changing abilities.

Let us look at some areas where I believe DCAA’s ability to change its mind is limited.

Reasonableness

Underlying this, as is often the case with DCAA, is the fundamental issues surrounding burden of proof. DCAA auditors can propose findings based on two conclusions: first; the finding is based on a violation of statute, regulation, or GAAP[1]; second; the finding is based on DCAA’s assertion that the cost is unreasonable or imprudent.

If a subsequent DCAA auditor objects to a cost that a previous DCAA auditor allowed because the previous auditor missed an applicable regulation, then the new DCAA auditor is not only within rights to question, but is ethically obligated to proceed with the finding development. However; if the proposed finding is based on reasonableness (or unreasonableness), I believe the contractor enjoys a strong argument that the actions of the previous auditor establish the cost was reasonable and that the personal differences in auditors cannot form the basis for a finding.

Implicit in this is the assumption that both auditors actually sampled and audited the cost. If the first auditor did not actually sample and audit the cost, there is no assumption made.

Sometimes I believe the only person some DCAA auditors lacks respect for more than a contractor is another DCAA auditor. It does not surprise me that this second guessing occurs frequently, but I have now provided a basis for evaluation and objection.

For a closer look at burden of proof issues, look at these previous articles.

Documentation

Another common area where we witness disputes between prior and present DCAA auditors is regarding documentation. The first auditor accepts the documentation while the subsequent auditor does not. Again, there is the assumption the first auditor actually sampled and reviewed the documentation. Again, if there is a SRG issue, especially a change in one of them, I believe the subsequent auditor has the right to raise the issue.

In most cases, the difference arises out of a different interpretation of the SRG. A good example is how some auditors read the requirement for consultant documentation. We will discuss this thoroughly in a future article on this case, but I will just point out that the judges noted that the subsequent DCAA’s auditor’s interpretation of the regulation on consultant documentation was wrong.

Where the documentation is basically identical, the issue gets a bit trickier. As the recent Lockheed Martin case asserted (I would link it if the website was up), inadequate documentation is not a reasonable and prudent argument. Because of this the burden of proof that the documentation is inadequate rests with the government auditor. Now the auditor has to demonstrate the documentation is inadequate despite the previous auditor’s acceptance. I think that is a challenge, but not an impossible one.

Policy and Procedure

Where DCAA should respect prior audit opinions is in the area of a contractor’s policies and procedures, and accounting structure.

DCAA recommended approval of an accounting system is a positive assertion on their part that the contractor’s accounting system is adequate for government contracting purposes. This is done by the auditor signing the SF 1408.

Some consultants sign the SF1408 and argue that this is the contractor’s privilege. I absolutely believe this is contrary to the regulation and it also takes away the DCAA signature accepting your accounting system and the positive assurance I am talking about.

I would argue that if it is covered by the SF 1408, the contractor and the government is provided assurance by DCAA that the system, to include policies and procedures is adequate.

For example, section 2(c) of the SF 1408 addresses allocation method.:

“A logical and consistent method for the allocation of indirect costs to intermediate and final cost objectives. (A contract is final cost objective.).”

There is a critical grammar mistake on the government’s part (is it “A contract is a final cost objective” or “A contract is the final cost objective”?).

Grammar question aside, an approved SF 1408 is an approval of the contractor’s allocation method (Total Cost Input, Value Added, or otherwise). DCAA should not subsequently object to the contractor’s allocation method unless there is a change (SRG or internal).

The SF 1408 is not comprehensive even if your policies and procedures are. Unfortunately, this does not mean that, as part of the process, when you send DCAA your hundred-page accounting policies and procedures you can assume they are all approved. I would only assume the ones covered by the SF 1408 are.

The best example of this are bonuses, which are not addressed in the SF 1408.

TSI believed they addressed the issue with DCAA. Their bonus plan was new to the year that was the subject of the audit findings and the appeals case. Before the submission they started a discussion on the bonus plan with DCAA :

“Mr. Fletcher testified that he met with DCAA auditor Marie Pepin for approximately two hours on 28 February 2008 to discuss the ICP for FY 2007 that would be submitted later in 2008, and raised the executive bonus plan with her during this discussion (tr. 2/121-22). According to Mr. Fletcher, Ms. Pepin said words to the effect of “this looks good to me,” and then they moved on to other subjects (tr. 2/123). We find, as a matter of fact, that this discussion was relatively short and superficial in nature and did not constitute any representation that the government gave final approval to the bonus plan as proposed or executed.”

I wonder if the court would have thought differently if TSI had employed my recommended procedures and followed up the meeting with an email documenting the agreement and attaching the plan?

If TSI had sent that email, we might have had a good case for deciding when and how DCAA can change its mind, even if DCAA ignored the email.

[1] I am going to refer to proposed findings based on statute, regulation or GAAP as “SRG” for the rest of this article.

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Very, Vary, Variance

Let us take a break from the Technology Services, Inc (TSI) case and talk about a continuing flaw in most small government contractor’s accounting system: tracking variances, specifically those associated with cost type contracts and the associated indirect costs.

Simply put, the variance is the amount the government owes you because your rates ran higher than your billing rates or the amount you owe the government because your rates ran lower than the billing rates.

DCAA’s Information for Contractors discusses the subject in Enclosure 5.

  1. Provisional Billing Rates.
  2. FAR 42.704 provides the CO (or cognizant Federal agency official) or auditor responsible for establishing the final indirect cost rates also shall be responsible for determining the billing rates. The Government allows interim payments, if authorized by the contract, during contract performance by progress payments for fixed-price contracts, or by public voucher for cost-type contracts. Reimbursement of indirect costs for these payments is generally made through billing rates that are established to approximately equal the expected final indirect cost rates for the contractor’s fiscal period, as adjusted for any unallowable costs. These billing rates are used for interim reimbursement purposes until settlement is reached on final rates after the end of the contractor’s fiscal year. Billing rates may be prospectively or retroactively revised by mutual agreement, at either the Government’s or contractor’s request, to prevent substantial overpayment or underpayment. Once the final rates are established, an adjustment is made for any variance between the billing and final rates.
  3. Upon receipt of the certified final indirect cost rate proposal, FAR 42.704(e) provides that the Government and the contractor may mutually agree to revise billing rates to reflect the certified proposed indirect cost rates. The proposed indirect rates will be adjusted to reflect historically disallowed amounts from prior audits until the proposal has been audited and settled. The historical decrement will be determined by either the CO or the auditor responsible for determining final indirect cost rates. If billed costs exceed claimed costs, the contractor must appropriately adjust the next voucher or remit or otherwise credit the Government for the difference.

This government publication points to one of the critical knowledge areas for small business government contractors. If you keep your books and accordingly run your business like the IRS wants their information, your will probably go out of business. If you do the same with regards to DCAA, you will almost certainly go out of business.

The IRS wants to collect information in a manner that makes it easier to assess your tax liability and collect the taxes. They simply have no interest in how your business is doing, your success or failure is not within their job description. DCAA enjoys a theoretical interest in a contractor’s success as it assumes that the contractor’s work is necessary to the government, but their institutional focus has been on the contractor’s expenses in terms of allocability and allowability. Profitability, to DCAA, is, at best, out of their scope of work. At worst, contractor profits can be a focus of suspicion for DCAA.

And variances have a direct impact on profitability and the ability of the contractor to succeed and prosper. Here are a couple examples from my work over the years:

A couple of decades ago, a contractor I worked with secured a $10,000,000 contract with the government and managed to talk them into a $5,000,000 advance payment on the contract. Almost unheard of, even back in those days.

Unfortunately, the owner died tragically just after receiving the advance payment. The company made the IRS happy and paid the taxes on the $5,000,000 and recorded the “revenue” on the books. Properly, the company should have booked the advance payment as Deferred Revenue, a liability, and the money should only have hit revenue as it was earned. This is an excellent example of how you fill out your tax return often should have no influence on how you manage your business.

I am sure you can guess, the contractor spent a lot of the money before they even began serious work on the contract and struggled for a couple of years to do the work without any new money for the work.

In another example going the other way, a client of mine brought me in to work some audit issues on a $27,000,000 contract. As I looked everything over, I asked about any variances and they assured me there were no variances. I looked at the billing for the five years and could not see any variance billing, and asked to take a look at one year to check. After some resistance, they agreed and I found they underbilled the government about $75,000 in the sample year. That justified taking a look at all five years and the amount grew to approximately $900,000 never billed to the government.

The latter one annoyed me a bit as this contractor paid me to help create their policies and procedures. These policies and procedures called on the contractor to track the variance on a monthly basis. Obviously this did not happen.

Other contractors I worked with over the years discovered during the preparation of their Incurred Cost Proposal that they owed the government tens of thousands of dollars they did not anticipate. Another former client never had a variance, his books somehow tied exactly to the billing rate year after year. It is a bit more innocent than it sounds. He actually thought he was contractually obligated to spend to that amount exactly.

And of course I have to mention the major accounting firm that called an emergency conference call because they did not understand why the rates on the incurred cost proposals differed from the billing rates.

Tracking variances is cost accounting 101. No one should be surprised by a variance. Contractors should track the variance on each contract each month. You calculate the variance (actual vs. billed) for the month and post the difference to the balance sheet. If you the variance is up one month and down the next, this method will show the contract-to-date total each month. Putting the variance on the books of record and reporting it on the balance sheet formalizes the process, making it a routine item to discuss at those monthly finance meetings.

After writing the first draft of this article this morning I reviewed standard report from one the popular government contracting system and discovered, to my great annoyance, that the variance was reported as an increase of profits!!!!  How do you explain this to your boss when you have to pay the money back? Maybe it is a setup issue, sigh….

There is some disagreement about where on the balance sheet to post the variance. I prefer to post the balances to an accounts receivable account (“CPFF Variance”) and the offset is to “CPFF Variance Revenue”. Some contractors use an inventory method, posting the variance to an inventory Work in Progress account on the balance sheet and posting the other side to a Cost of Goods Sold account.

Either way, you know where you are each month and there are no surprises.

What do you do if you are caught by surprise? Depending on your circumstances, there are some legitimate methods for addressing variances starting with a thorough analysis of allocability, allowability, and costs.

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Some of Those Pesky Questions Surrounding Timekeeping

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

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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