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

I Will Pay You on Tuesday Out of My Award

 Let us finish my look at 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 look at the last two areas, “Accrued costs crossing the fiscal year” and “Bonuses”. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I am an accountant and there may be some accounting advice.

Accrued Costs Across Fiscal Years.

Twice in the ruling the government raises an objection to the allowability of TCI’s costs because TCI accrued them in one year and expensed them in a subsequent year. At least I hope that is the government’s objection as the only reasonable alternative opens up a can of worms that the government would appear blind to.

Here are the two objections:

The ACO also disallowed some of the bonuses because they were paid in March 2008, in the fiscal year after FY 2007, which is the subject of this ICP.

And

According to the COFD, this prohibition prevented TSI from submitting its legal costs contemporaneously with their being incurred, 15 but the reason that TSI gave the DCAA for submitting the costs in the FY 2007 ICP, instead of in 2006 (when it supposedly became aware of the fact that it was cleared of wrongdoing), was that it “forgot” (R4, tab 16 at 260). Mr. Fletcher (with whom DCAA was dealing and would have been the person who DCAA claimed stated that he “forgot” to include the legal fees in FY 2006) denies ever making such a statement to DCAA (tr. 2/212).

For its part, the government does not dispute the fact that the legal fees for the investigation, as subjected to the 20% discount, would otherwise be allowable (see gov’t br. at 62, 64 ), but argues that the fees were expensed to the wrong year (id. at 62-63).

In the first case, the Board ignored the timing argument and disallowed the bonuses for reasons we will discuss later. In the second case, the Board directly rejected the timing argument in reference to the legal fees and allowed the majority of the fees.

Over the years, I encountered this timing argument from only a couple of DCAA auditors. Auditors raised the argument rarely and we addressed it pretty quickly by responding that GAAP required the accruals. The question displays a limited understanding of accrued accounting which is forgivable in a young auditor working through the differences between cost and expense. It is a bit more difficult to understand when the limited understanding rises all the way up DCAA and into an appeal before the Appeals Board. It is disheartening to look at the Appeals Board teaching DCAA GAAP 101.

Let us start with a simple absolute rule: if a cost is properly accrued and recorded, this is only reconsidered if the original entry is invalidated. An example of invalidation would be a subsequent decision not to pay the accrued expense. I would also note that GAAP enjoys extensive procedures for addressing such a subsequent event.

Legal fees present some unique challenges in government contractor accounting. Legal fees are, in my humble opinion, one of the only reasons for suspense accounts, as I go into detail about in this previous article. As I recommend in this article, legal costs where the allowability is unknown at yearend should be capitalized (after being accounted for tax and financial statement purposes) and expensed out as either claimed or unclaimed when their character is recognized. This would be a GAAP compliant policy in keeping with government contracting requirements.

In order for the government’s argument to make sense — that the contractor “forget” (see above) and the contractor expensed them in the wrong year, there are only three reasonable possibilities: 1) the costs were not on the general ledger or 2) the expenses were not recorded properly in the first place (capitalized instead of expensed), or 3) the expenses were capitalized but not expensed properly (the wrong year).

Obviously, the first issue is the can of worms I mentioned earlier and, if true, we would be experiencing a completely different discussion.

The second possibility is one that major publicly traded corporations are often accused of – unnecessary capitalization to control earnings. Not something a tax paying small business if often accused of, and again the argument here would not be timing but why the expense was capitalized.

As noted above, GAAP enjoys extensive rules to address mistakes surrounding the third possibility and DCAA does not appear to raise these, especially in light of both times DCAA raises timing in this case (bonus and legal fees).

No, DCAA seems to object to the fact that the contractor wishes to charge the government in 2007 but not pay it until 2008.

Hm, isn’t that concept enshrined in the FAR at FAR 52.216-7? The one where a few DCAA auditors chastise contractors for not paying accrued expenses fast enough?

Come on DCAA, the real question is if the contractor reversed the accruals in 2008 before paying them or just expensed them again.

Bonuses

Bonuses or Incentive pay, present unique challenges for contractors. The issue is complicated by the specific and narrow regulations found within the FAR.

The Appeals Board quotes FAR 31-205.6(f) in its entirety but also utilized FAR 31-205.6(a)(6) when they refer to profits:

“This determination is buttressed by evidence that Mr. Fletcher considered the bonus pool to effectively come from company profits and the fact its distribution ca at the whim of TSI’s “in” group, justifying “close scrutiny,” Nolan Brothers, 437 F.2d at 1834, which it simply cannot withstand.”.

Every time a DCAA auditor brings up the ‘distribution of profits’ I respond, or am tempted to respond, that the statute defines the 401(k) as a ‘profit sharing’ plan and that is allowable.

I believe it is proper for DCAA, and in this case the Appeals Board, to use the IRS distribution of profits as a method for assessing unclaimed bonuses, I just wish they understood it better. The IRS standard is directed toward ‘C’ corporations that pay out all of the profits at year end as a bonus to avoid the double taxation inherit in ‘C’ corporations. But the rules work as a good method of determining what is a profit and what is earned compensation.

What every small business contractor wants is the right to award employees, at management’s complete discretion, for a job well done. I imagine the employees would like the same.

The regulations take all the fun out. In order to pass muster a bonus plan must be so well written that it is “an agreement to make such payment”. TCI failed this standard even after they thought they received DCAA acceptance.

So what is a poor small business contractor to do? Why the same thing the huge federal government does: avoid the words “bonus” or “incentive pay”.

Remember the GSA bonus scandals a few years ago? When the federal government handed out millions of dollars to employees despite poor performance? Look for the words “bonus” or “incentive pay” in GSA policies.  The word “bonus” is there alongside another program not as extensively defined: “award”.

Contractors are free to develop well written and measurable bonus plans that meet the regulatory requirements. Contractors should also reserve the right to award employees for single or periodic exceptional performance (as does the federal government).

Of course awards are subject to audit and question by DCAA, but under the reasonable and prudent standard plus a possible excessive compensation argument.

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The Good and the Bad — All in the Same Audit

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 developing findings and documenting consultants’ work products. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

 

Developing Findings

The fact that I consider this topic worthy of discussion illustrates the reality that the failure of auditors to properly develop findings is an ongoing issue in too many DCAA audits. Way too often, the first time a contractor hears about a proposed finding is when it is proposed.

During a recent DCAA auditor, the auditor thought she could benefit from the research she did on me and my views by announcing her agreement with what she thought was one of my strong assertions:

“Well, we all know that the Contract Audit Manual. is not regulatory and only guidance”.

My response had a visible impact on her: “The CAM is guidance for contractors, but it is your standing orders. I would expect a DCAA auditor to follow those orders.”

Let us see what those standing orders in the CAM say about developing findings:

4-303.1(b) The auditor should discuss preliminary audit findings (e.g., potential system deficiencies, potential FAR/CAS noncompliances, etc.) with the contractor to ensure conclusions are based on a complete understanding of all pertinent facts. These types of discussions do not impair auditor independence and are generally necessary to obtain sufficient evidence to support audit conclusions.

 

6-708(b). During the course of the audit, significant audit findings should be brought to the attention of, and discussed with, the contractor, and when appropriate with the cognizant principal ACO and CAC, as soon as possible to expedite the resolution process (See 6-902e). The discussions are to ensure that the auditor’s conclusions are based on a proper understanding of the facts and to ascertain whether the contractor/ACO/CAC has any additional information which would support or modify the audit findings. This will enable resolution of the findings to take place prior to the completion of the audit. If agreement on an issue cannot be reached, the contractor should be requested to prepare a rebuttal for inclusion in the audit report. The process outlined above will result in an efficient audit that will conserve both audit and contractor personnel resources.

6-709(b). During the course of the audit, significant audit findings should be brought to the attention of, and discussed with, the contractor, and, where appropriate, with the principal cognizant ACO and CAC, as soon as possible so as to expedite the resolution process (see 6-902e). The discussions are to ensure that the auditor’s conclusions are based on a proper understanding of the facts and to ascertain whether the contractor/ACO/CAC have any additional information which would support or modify the audit findings

I simply cannot stress how many times simple misunderstandings were cleared up because the DCAA field operator brought it to our attention before taking it to their supervisor, and after that writing it up as a proposed finding. Heading off trouble at the earliest stages is an essential aspect of successful DCAA relationships.

One famous example was a DCAA auditor putting together this extensive spreadsheet that “proved” the contractor was calculating social security taxes incorrectly and that highly compensated employees were not paying their fair share of social security tax. He was still pretty embarrassed, but at least he had not written it up and sent it to his supervisor.

No one likes egg on their face and contractors should avoid watching DCAA auditors make fools of themselves. Sometimes this results a stubborn refusal on the part of some DCAA auditors to admit an error, such as my aggregating “Backspace Key Crisis

In the TSI case, it appears time and time again that both DCAA (at least the second auditor) and DCMA bent over backwards in the attempt to allow the contractor to dispute the findings. Despite this, it appears DCAA and DCMA stuck to their guns only to find the appeals board disagreeing with the auditors on over half of their findings.

Documenting Consultants Work Product.

It is a pure joy to hear the appeals board admonish DCAA with the exact arguments I made time and time again. I will let the judges speak for themselves:

The government labors under the false impression that the FAR requires a consultant to create “work product” merely for the purposes of proving its costs (see R4, tab 16 at 258, 260; gov’t br. at 54-55, 64-66). Though the FAR language in question is not as clear as we might like, it can be read- as we read it here – to impose no such requirement, Moreover, we have factually found the invoices submitted by TSI to be adequate to support a finding that TSI incurred the charged costs for SMI’s marketing activities.

We begin by examining that language of the FAR that the government holds out as requiring the generation and provision of “work product” to entitle recovery of costs for professional and consultant services. FAR 31.205-33, Professional and consultant service costs, provides in relevant part that:

(f) Fees for services rendered are allowable only when supported by evidence of the nature and scope of the service provided. work performed is proper and does not violate law or regulation shall include

(1) Details of all agreements (e.g., work requirements, rate of compensation, and nature and amount of other expenses, if any) with the individuals or organizations providing the services and details of actual services performed;

(2) Invoices or billings submitted by consultants, including sufficient detail as to the time expended and nature of the actual services provided; and

(3) Consultants’ work products and related documents, such as trip reports indicating persons visited and subjects discussed, minutes of meetings, and collateral memoranda and reports.

The government makes a superficially persuasive argument, that the FAR’s statement that the evidence necessary to determine that the work is proper “shall include … work products” and related documents, makes the provision of such documents mandatory (gov’t hr. at 54). The problem with this interpretation of the FAR is that it does not account for the case in which such documents were never created by the consultant. Moreover, it does not account for the case where, as here, the invoices include the data that the FAR defines as work product, such as persons visited and subjects discussed. We further note, that DCAA’s own audit manual, reflecting the government’s own interpretation of this FAR requirement, provides that, “[t]he auditor should not insist on a work product if other evidence provided is sufficient to determine the nature and scope of the actual work performed.” DCAA Manual, at 58-2 – 58-3. Moreover, amongst the “Frequently Asked Questions” in the relevant portions of the audit manual are responses indicating that other additional evidence may be considered to determine whether the services were, indeed, provided and allowable. Id. at 58-7.

Thus, we conclude that FAR 31.205-33(f) may require the provision of a consultant’s work product, if it exists, but is not so rigid as to require its creation when it would not otherwise be necessary for the consultant to perform its duties. To be sure, any lack of work product makes it more difficult for a contractor to prove that it incurred the costs for which it seeks compensation, and the lack of work product in an instance where the consulting work was of such a scale or scope that work product would be expected may properly subject the costs to question. As with most things, the proper amount of documentation and work product to be expected will largely depend on the scope of work performed, and we do not conclude that the FAR 25 intended to impose “make work” upon consultants that would only lead to higher costs to the contractor which would then be imposed upon the taxpayer.

Turning to the facts before us, we have found that the consulting agreements and the invoices provided, combined with the testimony given at the hearing, persuade us that the costs included in TSI’s FY 2007 ICP for SMI’s marketing services were, in fact, for that purpose and are allowable. This portion of the appeal is sustained.

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The Line Between Simplicity and Woops!

The  Armed Services Board of Contract Appeal is STILL 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 depreciation. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Depreciation

Depreciation and its evil sister Amortization often result in contractor upset stomachs and a desire to find a nice quiet spot somewhere where accountants can be beaten with long thin sticks. Tax and GAAP rules often differ significantly and can result in reconciling differences the contractor must track. To further add to this complexity, many accelerated tax depreciation methods are available for defined periods or under special conditions due to political decisions to impact the economy. Some depreciation methods are even restricted to certain neighborhoods (Okay, enterprise zones).

Too many contractors avoid this complexity and stick with a simple universal method for both tax and their financial (GAAP) books. This can cost the contractor real money but allows these individuals to sleep better.

TSI appears to have been one of those contractors who tried to keep tax and financial accounting together. Up until the year in question (2007), they depreciated their assets on a multiyear basis but in 2007 they ‘expensed’ out $26,198 in computer equipment of which $18,840 went onto the tax return as capital assets and expensed under Section 179. They claimed the full amount on the incurred cost submission.

TSI came up with an after-the-fact argument that reasonably argued some of the costs were not capital costs (short life), but admitted that not all of the costs fell into this category and could not identify the different equipment.

The Board took notice that TSI did not have any depreciation polices in 2007 or the previous years. In absence of contractor policies, the Board relied on consistency and noted that previous to 2007 the contractor utilized multiyear depreciation. As a result, TSI lost most of the 26k it expensed on the incurred cost proposal.

Depreciation policies and procedures are not specifically addressed in DCAA’s preaward audit program or in the government’s SF 1408. This is another excellent reason why contractors should adopt comprehensive policies and procedures and move past what DCAA looks at initially. The only real FAR restriction for small contractors, as noted by the Board, is not to charge the government more than is found on your financial books.

Depreciation Lessons

  1. Depreciate Often and Wisely – Contractors should take advantage of tax benefits allowed and should set up systems that allow the differences between tax and GAAP to track easily by utilizing memorandum or reversing journal entries as a simple example. Many software programs offer to track this difference with little effort. This leads to the second point.
  2. Policies and Procedures Protect and Explain – It is not just about compliance, excellent policies and procedures serve as a roadmap allowing a contractor to see where they have been (current policy and procedure) and figure out where they want to be (adapted policy and procedures). To phrase this in a way many of my engineering clients will appreciate: How can you begin to discuss modifications to a design without the current specification sitting in front of you? Policies and Procedures are your business specifications.
  1. Excellent Policies and Procedures are Dynamic – Want to adapt accelerated depreciation? Look at your needs, GAAP, and other compliance issues and move forward. Just do not forget to include the changes on your Schedule M.

One final note, the Board, as is typical, ordered the government and TSI to recalculate the rates based on the Board’s decision. I wonder if there will be arguments on the allowable 2007 depreciation, given the lack of governing policies and procedures? I imagine they will eventually agree on the method used in previous years, but the DCAA may have question about those now that the light is focused on the issue. I am also curious if DCAA proposed disallowing ALL of the 2007 depreciation and the Board caught this.

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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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DCMA Criticized for not Following DCAA Recommendations on Incurred Cost Proposal Audits.

One again proving that the contractor should defend costs BEFORE DCAA makes its findings official.

 

http://www.dodig.mil/pubs/report_summary.cfm?id=7287&utm_source=DoD+IG+Email+Update+-+Reports+and+Testimonies&utm_campaign=e02c5e6e40-DoD_IG_Reports&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3a17f8681e-e02c5e6e40-277174597

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A Shot Across the Bow?

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 auditor independence. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

DCAA Auditor Independence

CPA ethics drove me insane for years before I took the exam and the subsequent ethics exam. I often compare the profession’s complicated ethics rule to the Pharisees described in the New Testament. But beyond the esoteric ethic issues surrounding the audit of the town’s only bank by the town’s only CPA who is a customer of the bank, I want to focus on a couple of simple clear issues regarding DCAA auditor independence.

First, there is the general issue of questioning DCAA’s very ability to be independent. DCAA works for the government, often they work directly for the contractor’s “customer” DCMA. DCAA actually advertises their job as not finding the truth but finding “unallowable” tax dollars.  From a common sense point, not a great argument for independence. As a comparison, I do not see the IRS’s primary focus on recovering tax dollars. The focus there seems a little more skewed toward finding the facts (truth).

While I may question DCAA’s institutional ability to be independent, I acknowledge they are granted this assumption of independence by statute. While DCAA in fact, may not be independent, such independence is assumed in order for the government to protect tax payers.

Some of the alternative’s may be worse. I have argued that the government hiring of outside CPA firms to conduct incurred cost proposal audits as destroying even the institutional illusion of independence. The outside CPA firms are contractors looking to keep the contract while, for good or bad, DCAA auditors enjoy some job security and thus a bit more independence. I even referred to the CPA firm contractors as “contractors” in management responses. Outside CPA firms are even more strongly motivated than DCAA to find “unallowable” costs on behalf of their actual customer.

Again, while moaning about the possible illusionary independence of DCAA, I accept it as an institution. This brings us to the second level of auditor independence: those cases where individual auditors, offices, branches, or even the institution abandon the illusionary independence and act in an unethical manner. There are those rare occasions when an auditor is “on a witch hunt” for the contractor, or at least the contractor comes to believe this.

The issue is discussed in several paragraphs of the TSI opinion on both the actual opinion and the dissenting opinion. The following paragraph gets to the heart of the matter:

TSI advances two somewhat related factual allegations that are relevant to its course of conduct legal theory, which we will discuss shortly: first, that the DCAA auditor who performed the initial work on the FY 2007 ICP audit was, for some unstated reason, biased against TSI; and second, that the DCAA had been much easier on it in past audits (app. br. at 3-5; app. reply br. at 10-11). In testimony presented by TSI, Mr. Fletcher, its CFO, characterized the first DCAA auditor, Ms. Waller, as having been “on a witch hunt” (tr. 2/165). Moreover, as discussed above, there was ample evidence of friction between Ms. Waller and TSI and early indications from TSI that it did not believe that it would get a “fair” audit from Ms. Waller. Nevertheless, the evidence also demonstrates that the preliminary work performed by Ms. Waller was not the end of the story, given the change in questioned costs demonstrated most clearly by Tables 1, 2, and 3 above. Moreover, the ACO credibly testified that her decisions regarding which costs to question were made independently (tr. 1/251 ), which is consistent with the back-and-forth which she attempted with TSI prior to issuing her COFD. We need not delve into these circumstances any further due to the fact that TSI, itself, has “concede[ d]” that its claim that the COFD should be set aside due to lack of auditor independence “cannot be sustained” (app. br. at 3).

 

Off the top of my head, I do not recall an incident where I concluded that a DCAA auditor’s personal bias interfered with an audit, but there were many occasions where the contractor thought so and I understood how they came to this belief. To be frank, I believe contractors take personally an auditor’s professional incompetence and see this incompetence as a witch hunt. Professional competence is not simply technical but also encompasses behavior with the audit subject, and not all DCAA auditors show a mastery of this area and some of them experience a strong reaction when a contractor questions their actions or requests.

All of this simply reminds us that DCAA auditors are human beings working, in my opinion, in a less than ideal envrioment. They are asked to function as independent auditors in a instution that places enormous value on finding contractor errors. I do believe the vast majority of them rise above this pressure.

Another example of where it appears personal is when we remember that DCAA auditors are thrust out on audits with a great deal of authority and not always the experience, knowledge, or support, to exercise that power in the best way possible. DCAA is working hard to address this issue, but the last crisis took a serious toll on the agency’s institutional knowledge. I remember a young DCAA auditor threatening me with a fraud referral because he concluded that a working trial balance was an instrument to defraud the government. Many such auditors are now supervisors.

There are many findings of auditor incompetence, even serious allegations of DCAA malpractice, but I believe it is rarely, if ever, personal.

What is interesting about the TSI case is that all three of the judges were willing to look at evidence of bias. That is a warning shot across the bow of the ship DCAA.

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Material Overhead Rate — Off and On

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

I talked about unapproved contractors in the last article and today I am going to look at item one: Supporting Material Overhead rate. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

The material overhead rate did not actually end up as part of this case only because the second DCAA auditor did not pursue it. TSI proposed a material overhead rate of 1.05% that the first DCAA auditor recommended be 100% disallowed while the second auditor accepted the rate. TSI alleged that the first auditor “had it in” for them and we will discuss the minimal discussion on DCAA auditor independence later.

Almost all of this article is speculative on my part and should not be taken to represent what actually occurred, but when I got the page where the initial DCAA auditor rejected all of the material overhead rate I thought “Crap, that has been a long time coming”. When I saw that DCAA backed off in the second stab at the audit, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “Not this time”.

Two Sides of the Circle or Contractors with Multiple Government Bosses

It is important to remember that government contractors circle around two extremes of government compliance. On one side, there is the programs staff and their associated contracting officers. These are the guys who issue the RFP, decide you are the guy they want, and issue the contract in coordination with DCMA.

On the other side of the circle is DCAA which looks at the contractor’s costs and business systems then recommends actions to DCMA based on their audit work.

A government contractor needs to make both sides as happy as possible, and I would argue that Material Overhead Rates is one of the bizarre evolutions within government contracting that arose to make this hope of making both sides (programs and compliance) happy a reality. The concept exists in established cost accounting practice but is not as universal as many RFPs would imply.

Just Where Do We Put that Pesky G&A?

The FAR, CAS, and DCAA are strong on contractors allocating general and administrative (G&A) costs utilizing a method labeled Total Cost Input (TCI). TCI allocates G&A costs over all other costs (direct (to include materials and subcontractors), overhead, fringe and so on). CAS actually states “A total cost input base is generally acceptable as an appropriate measure of total activity of a business unit”.

Thus TCI is automatically accepted as a valid way of allocating G&A by everyone. Everyone except the government people on the other side of the circle (programs and their branch contracting officers). It often seems a majority of them think burdening travel, materials, subcontractors, and materials with a G&A rate is an outrageous and immoral act. Addressing this indignation over the years, it is clear to me that many of the associated program people (including buyers) look at this allocation as a mark-up not an allocation of actual allowable indirect costs.

I will give you two recent examples. One was a final four major accounting firm auditing a client’s incurred cost proposal on a DOE contract. The supervisor auditor entered my office at the client site (I was there supporting the audit) and spent a lot of time arguing that allocating G&A on a subcontract was unethical (his words) since the subcontract contained its own G&A and this meant the government was being charged twice.

Obviously he did not enjoy a great deal of experience with value added taxes, and I responded by asserting that was the subcontractor’s G&A and not the prime’s (my client). The two could simply not be compared. A G&A rate is not arbitrary and represents an allocation of legitimate indirect expenses, expenses of both the subcontractor and the prime contractor. It is not a ‘profit’.

He then argued that the allocated G&A simply stood out of proportion to the base cost. It takes a great deal more G&A to administer direct labor than cut a check to a subcontractor. I actually thought this a much stronger argument, but he was still out of his league. I reminded him that the prime is responsible for the subcontractor and it is never as simple as cutting a check.

He still argued on and on about the injustice of the allocation. I finally made two additional points that finally closed the argument. First, all allocation methods are ultimately subjective and arbitrary. Second, please leave my office and come back with a statutory or regulatory basis that supported his argument.

The second example involved an Army contracting officer complaining that because their contract with the contractor was about half materials and the Air Force’s contract was all services, the Army was receiving an inequitable allocation of G&A. I responded by stating that the inequity could only be applied on a government wide level and not a branch level.

The thought behind these arguments and the countless other times I encounter them, is that a dollar spent on direct materials, subcontractors, and even travel, should not receive the same amount of G&A as direct labor. To approach from a different angle, given a G&A rate of 10% it is unfair to burden $500,000 of material costs with $50,000 of G&A.

One way I attempt to explain this to the program’s side is by trying to tie them into the whole picture:

“Okay, if a contractor has $75,000 in direct labor, $25,000 in subcontractor costs with $10,000 in allowable G&A, we have to allocate the $10,000.  The government is legally obligated to pay for the $10,000. Total Cost Input gives $7,500 to the labor costs and $2,500 to the subcontractor costs. How would you do it?”

Too often I get a response such as “I do not know, but that is too much on the subcontractor”.

The Program People Come Up with an Idea

This, I believe led to the development of “Material Overhead Rate”, “Subcontractor Handling Rate” and other similar line items on various RFPs approximately fifteen years ago. These line items are intended to relieve materials and subcontractors of G&A costs while acknowledge there are indirect costs associated with these direct cost elements.

Problem solved?

The number one question I get from contractors working on these RFPs is “What rate do we use?” or “How do we calculate this rate?” In other words, how do contractors separate out from G&A the part of G&A associated with subcontractors or materials. The base is defined, but how do you populate the pool? How do we justify a 3% Material Overhead Rate with a separate 10% G&A rate?

If you want a glimpse at the potential can or worms these rates may open look at questions 12 -21 on the “Contractor Forward Pricing Rate Proposal Adequacy Checklist” under DFARS 215.403-5.

Again, this is supposition on my part, but I wonder if the first DCAA auditor asked TSI for just such documentation, the justification for creation and operation of the Materials Overhead rate. I am guessing she decided it was inadequate. I am also guessing the second DCAA auditor understood the complexity of this issue and decided to focus valuable time elsewhere.

Material Overhead and Subcontracting Handling are legitimate cost accounting objectives The challenges in developing and maintaining the rate are reduced for larger contractors where the size and frequency of activity makes it easier to allocate and define such allocations.

Small business contractors face greater challenges developing, implementing, and defending these rates. If you can identify time spent on handling materials on a specific contract, is this Material Overhead or Direct Labor? The same is true of the time spent reviewing a subcontractor invoice. Even if you feel comfortable with the methodology you develop there is no guarantee DCAA will not question it this year or next year (which is another issue raised in this case that we will address later).

This is one of those rare occasions where I will not share some of my approaches for addressing this issue among small business contractors. I prefer to share these on a case by case basis with DCAA if required. They are ethical and defensible, but vary from contractor to contractor.

Some RFPs appear to acknowledge some of these complexities and replace Material Overhead Rate with Material Overhead Fee. Take them at their word and treat it as a fee, a request not to burden materials or subcontractors with G&A while compensating contractors for the acknowledged costs involved in administrating those costs (materials and subcontractors). Do not include it in your rate proposal.

That is until some bright DCAA auditor wonders if the fee should be included in the base….

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