Fresh head-scratchers from the world of federal contracting

Banged-up cars and seizing ship engines. A slice of federal programs isn't going as planned.

Ever built a house, put on an addition or remodeled a bathroom? You’ve got to watch contractors like a hawk. Doors in the wrong place, left out outlets, the wrong color bathtub — I’ve seen it all.

Contractors like to cut costs where they can. My dad built a house in a new tract outside of Cleveland in 1950. On the day the grading crew was there, Dad was at the site and had the grader operator spend 15 minutes extra on our lot, so the lawn would come out just so. As the legend goes, the supervisor arrived, saw what had happened and fired the grader operator on the spot. If 15 minutes was allocated to each lot for grading, why spending an extra 15 minutes on any one lot would cut into profits.

That tug and pull between customer and contractor — it’s what has kept me interested in federal contracting for nearly 25 years. It never gets boring, the stories never failing to amaze. Like the background investigation contractor who “stuffed” thousands of applications through the system to meet its deadline, never mind whether it vetted the individuals properly. The construction contractor in Iraq that built a police academy so shoddily it was barely habitable. I can still see the inspector general’s photograph of urine flowing from somewhere and filling up a light fixture on the floor below. Or the federal building security contractor that sent an infant through a magnetometer.

More often, the right and wrong aren’t so clear cut. Especially in big software development projects, often it is the government’s change orders and shifting requirements that drive up costs, stretch out timelines and pile on bugs and errors. But the same thing happens with airplanes, ships and buildings.

Two stories just this week could make a contracting officer, or a taxpayer, laugh and cry at the same time.

Michelle Mackin of the Government Accountability Office oversaw a fresh look at a signature program of the Coast Guard, the $6 billion National Security Cutter. Three of the star-crossed ships have already been delivered by Ingalls Shipbuilding. They work great, except for when the engines fail in warm water, overheating to the point that the cylinder heads crack. Or the single-point davit that causes the attached boat to wobble too much when the ship is in choppy water. Or the gantry crane at the transom that wasn’t designed for open-sea use and is constantly corroding. Yikes — what if they need that engine, or davit, or for that matter the balky 57mm gun when a terrorist dinghy is coming near?

GAO published a little diagram showing the problem spots. They range stem to stern, radar antenna to engine room.

Federal News Radio’s Jared Serbu, meanwhile, reports on a crazy problem that is getting close to being fixed. But I’m trying to imagine how in the first place U.S. Transportation Command went with a contractor with no available past performance record to ferry service members’ cars around the world for international relocations.

Thousands and thousands of vehicles were simply delivered late by International Auto Logistics, if the service member was lucky. Thousands of cars were also damaged, even totaled, in transit.

Last summer DoD managed to “fusion team” the contractor up to a 97 percent on-time delivery rate — but only after $162 million in improper payments went out. For that money, TRANSCOM could have bought 5,400 cars at an average selling price of $30,000. Still, despite lawsuits from service members, TRANSCOM is extending the contract.

Kinda makes you wonder what would happen should a four-star’s vintage Mustang get banged up in transit, or her hard-candy, gold-flame Road Glide.

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More commentary from Tom Temin