Firm's contract kerfuffle highlights stimulus doubts
Local company gets nod for federal Web site revamping
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
A St. Mary's County technology firm that recently won a contract to revamp the federal government's stimulus accountability Web site is at the center of a media-fueled debate over how stimulus money is doled out.
The General Services Administration last week announced it had awarded the initial $9.52 million contract to Hollywood-based Smartronix Inc. with options that could boost the contract's valve to nearly $18 million by 2014.
Within days, several media outlets, including Fox News and the Washington Examiner, criticized the size of the contract and alleged that campaign contributions made to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer from Smartronix executives played a role in the company being selected to design the Recovery.gov 2.0 site.
A spokeswoman for Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said he was not involved in the contract and had no knowledge that it was awarded to a business in his district until the media reports surfaced.
"Congressman Hoyer had no involvement in the award of this contract. Any suggestion otherwise is disingenuous and not based on fact," said Stephanie Lundberg, Hoyer's press secretary. "Federal contracts are awarded independently, not by members of Congress."
Calls placed to Smartronix were not returned by press time, but the company did post a statement on its Web site that makes no reference to the allegations of pay-to-play contracting.
"Smartronix is honored to have been selected to redesign the Recovery.gov 2.0 Web site," said CEO John Parris in a press release. "We have assembled the best team to meet the contract's complex requirements and have immediately begun work to meet the Recovery.gov 2.0's aggressive schedule. We look forward to working with the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and our partners to develop a solution that will allow the American taxpayer to see how the money from the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 is being distributed and managed."
Those who have questioned the high cost to redesign the Recovery.gov Web site are misguided, RAT Board Chairman Earl Devaney told Congress Daily last week. Critics have oversimplified the task of revamping "the government's largest Web site" in such a short time, as well as the difficulty of building security controls and interconnectivity with a reporting system designed to handle a huge amount of information, he said.
Still, anti-tax groups are up in arms about the price tag and the lack of information known about the contract.
"Tech-savvy experts tell us that there really are no Web sites out there that would merit this kind of cost — including sites for major retailers or banking Web sites," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, in a statement. "So unfortunately, it looks like taxpayers are once again being taken for a ride — with blindfolds for that matter."
Accountability watchdog groups said it is premature to assail the cost before seeing the final product.
"That may be a bargain depending on the basis of the work that we're asking them to do," said Scott H. Amey, general counsel for Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit organization that monitors waste, fraud and abuse throughout the federal government.
"The amount of money sounds high for a database, but I'm not an IT expert, so I can't say how much a database [like this] costs," he said.
A glance at details of how the contract was advertised and awarded did not raise any red flags, he said. The contract was competitively contested — two other companies submitted bids — and it includes a "full-solution package" for operations and maintenance, which is good.
One factor that likely contributes to the price tag is that the quick timeline to redevelop the Web site commands a premium, said Craig T. Jennings, a senior policy analyst for OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that aims to increase federal accountability and transparency.
"There's been a rush to criticism that I think is really unwarranted," he said. "At an initial glance, $18 million is a lot, but … it could be that this Web site is going to be really awesome and that it's going to deliver the transparency that the administration is aiming for."
And it is unlikely that Hoyer, despite his high profile within Congress, curries influence within the GSA and the federal procurement process, Jennings said.
The Examiner reported that Smartronix executives contributed $19,000 to Hoyer since 1999. Although there is no hard evidence of any wrongdoing, Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Ryan O'Donnell said it is another example where the role of money in politics raises ethical questions.
"You can't prove it one way or the other," he said. "You seldom can, which is why taking money out of politics is so important to begin with because if you do create that separation, you never have any question."
Expending up to $18 million to make stimulus spending more transparent is a worthy outlay, O'Donnell added.
"That's a drop in the bucket compared to the [size] of this stimulus package," he said of the $787 billion plan signed in February. "There needs to be a way for the public to oversee it and a Web site is making information public and helping to create accountability itself. I think it's definitely fair play to criticize any part of the stimulus package, but in order to do that, transparency is essential."