150 Protests And Counting: GAO Suspends “Frequent Protester”

Citing an abuse of the protest process, the GAO has suspended a company’s right to file bid protests for a period of one year.

The GAO’s unusual action was taken after the contractor in question filed 150 bid protests in the ongoing fiscal year alone, most of which have been dismissed for technical reasons.  The GAO’s decision also cites “baseless accusations” made by the protester, including accusing GAO officials of being “white collar criminals” and asserting that “various federal officials have engaged in treason.”

The GAO’s decision in Latvian Connection LLC, B-413442 (Aug. 18, 2016) arose under a task order issued by DISA to ManTech Advanced Information Systems, Inc. for engineering services.  The task order in question was issued in 2013, and ManTech completed full performance on January 31, 2016.

After ManTech had completed full performance, Latvian Connection LLC filed a bid protest challenging the task order award.  Latvian Connection alleged that DISA had erred by failing to issue the task order solicitation as a small business set-aside and by failing to publish the solicitation on the FedBizOpps website.

Apparently, this particular protest was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  While the GAO’s decision addressed the particular task order in question, the GAO focused in large part on Latvian Connection’s widespread use of the protest process.

The GAO started by explaining that “our records show that, thus far this fiscal year, Latvian Connection has filed 150 protests with our Office.”  Of those protests, 131 have been decided: one was denied on the merits, and “[t]he remaining protests were dismissed, the most common reason being that Latvian Connection was not an interested party.”  Further, “[a] number of Latvian Connection’s most recent protests, like the instant protest, have been attempts to challenge acquisitions where the contract in question was awarded years ago.”

But it wasn’t just the number and nature of Latvian Connection’s many protests that drew the GAO’s ire; the GAO also found the content of those protests troubling.  The GAO wrote that “Latvian Connection’s protests are typically a collection of excerpts cut and pasted from a wide range of documents having varying degrees of relevance to the procurements at issue, interspersed with remarks from the protester.  The tone of the filings is derogatory and abusive towards both agency officials and GAO attorneys.”  The GAO continued:

While its protests typically revolve around the two central issues noted above, Latvian Connection also routinely makes baseless accusations.  In recent months, Latvian Connection has claimed that agency and GAO officials are white collar criminals; that the actions of agency procurement officials have violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968; that various federal agency officials have engaged in treason; that GAO has violated the Equal Access to Justice Act, 5 U.S.C.§ 504; and that agency and GAO officials have engaged in activities that amount either to engaging in, or covering up, human trafficking and slavery.

The GAO dismissed the protest against the ManTech contract award both for lack of standing and lack of jurisdiction.  The GAO then turned again to Latvian Connection’s protest history.  The GAO noted that, although Latvian Connection had protested hundreds of acquisitions under which the government has sought a wide variety of goods and services, “[p]ublicly available information provides no evidence that Latvian Connection has successfully performed even a single government contract, and there is no evidence in the many cases presented to our Office to suggest that Latvian Connection engages in any government business activity whatsoever beyond the filing of protests.”  The GAO then stated:

The wasted effort related to Latvian Connection’s filings is highlighted by its latest series of protests (including the current protest) challenging acquisitions that were conducted years ago, where performance is complete and there is no possible remedy available. These protests have placed a burden on GAO, the agencies whose procurements have been challenged, and the taxpayers, who ultimately bear the costs of the government’s protest-related activities.  When presented with evidence, as here, that Latvian Connection does not hold the umbrella ID/IQ contract under which the order was issued, or that the order involves an amount lower than the statutory threshold for GAO’s task order jurisdiction, Latvian repeatedly fails to engage with the issues.  Instead, the company simply files a lengthy, often unrelated, harangue that does not address the threshold issues that must be answered by any forum as part of its review. 

We conclude that the above-described litigation practices by Latvian Connection constitute an abuse of our process, and we dismiss the protest on this basis.  Although dismissal for abuse of process or other improper behavior before our Office should be employed only in the rarest of cases, it is appropriate here where we find that Latvian Connection’s abusive litigation practices undermine the integrity and effectiveness of our process.

In addition, the GAO wrote, “because of these abusive litigation practices, and to protect the integrity of our bid protest forum and provide for the orderly and expedited resolution of protests, we are suspending Latvian Connection from protesting to our Office for a period of one year as of the date of this decision.”  The GAO remarked that it does “not take these actions lightly,” but “[n]onetheless, on balance, suspending for one year Latvian Connection’s eligibility to file protests with our Office may incentivize the firm to focus on pursuing legitimate grievances in connection with acquisitions for which there is evidence that Latvian Connection actually is interested in competing.”

The GAO concluded:

Our bid protest process does not provide, and was never intended to provide, a platform for the complaints of businesses or individuals that, to all outward appearances, have no actual interest in, or capability to perform, the government contracting opportunities to which they have objected.  Nor, as a forum for the expeditious and inexpensive resolution of bid protests, are we required to endure baseless and abusive accusations.

A reader of the GAO’s decision might conclude that all of Latvian Connection’s protests have been frivolous.  Not so.  SmallGovCon readers will recall that last year, the GAO actually sustained two of Latvian Connection’s protests, involving FedBid reverse auctions.  These decisions established (at least in my eyes) important precedent concerning agencies’ responsibilities when using FedBid.  The GAO also sustained a third Latvian Connection protest in a case confirming that offerors are not presumed to be “on notice” of agency postings on websites other than FedBizOpps.

In fairness to Latvian Connection, then, it is clear that at least a handful of its many protests have been meritorious.  That said, I can’t begin to imagine why a single company would feel the need to file 150 protests in the span of one not-yet-completed fiscal year.  And while I haven’t had the opportunity to review the contents of Latvian Connection’s protest filings myself, I believe that the protest system works best where the litigants (even though adversarial) treat each other with basic norms of courtesy and respect.  If Latvian Connection failed to meet this standard–as suggested by the various “baseless accusations” referenced in the GAO decision–then that failure alone is detrimental to the protest process.

The Latvian Connection case may become known for the effect it will have on a single company, but I think it’s broader than that: the GAO knows that allowing abuse of the protest system harms those who use the system in the way it was intended, and risks political intervention that might harm all contractors’ ability to file good faith protests.  And in a world where 45% of GAO protests result in a favorable outcome for the protester, there can be little doubt that the good faith use of the protest system serves an important public purpose.  Contractors can ill afford a Congressional rollback of their protest rights.  As the Latvian Connection case demonstrates, the GAO itself possesses the inherent authority to sanction what it believes to be abuse of the protest system, and will exercise that authority in an appropriate (and rare) case.