Generally speaking, government contractors know that part of the cost of doing business with the federal government is some loss of autonomy. The government writes the rules. It is the 500 lb. gorilla. What it says usually goes.
When contractors try to do things their own way–even in an relatively informal medium such as email–they can sometimes get into trouble, as evidenced by a recent GAO protest decision: Bluehorse Corp., B-414809 (Aug. 18, 2017).
The protest involved a procurement for diesel fuel as part of a highway construction project near Polacca, Arizona, by the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The solicitation said that the fuel would be delivered as needed by the construction project. During a question-and-answer session, the contracting officer said that BIA had two 5,000 gallon tanks for storage, and that the agency “typically” orders 4,000 gallons at a time.
Bluehorse Corp., a Reno, Nevada, Indian Small Business Economic Enterprise, provided a quotation that said it had the ability to supply 7,500 gallons per delivery.
The contracting officer selected Bluehorse for award. On June 13, it sent it a purchase order which specified that each delivery would be 4,000 gallons. The purchase order incorrectly stated that the capacity of the tanks was 4,000 gallons each.
In response, Bluehorse and the contracting officer spent the day emailing each other back and forth about the parameters of the deal. Bluehorse was insistent that it should be allowed to deliver 7,500 gallons at a time. The emails escalated in fervor from a polite request that the government clarify the capacity of its tanks to a threat that “[i]f you don’t amend we will simply protest.” Importantly, in one of the emails, Bluehorse said “our offer was made on the ability to make a 7500 [gallon] drop . . . .”
The contracting officer responded that Bluehorse was attempting to provide its own terms by “determining the amount you want to deliver and not what the government is requesting[.]”
When Bluehorse did not respond, the contracting officer rescinded the offer. In the span of a day, the deal had completely fallen apart. Bluehorse protested, saying that the agency relied on unstated evaluation criteria and “inexplicably” limited deliveries to 4,000 gallons.
GAO sided with the 500 lb. gorilla. It said that although the offer initially conformed to the terms of the solicitation (because the initial reference to 7,500 gallon deliveries was a “statement of capability”) when Bluehorse told the contracting officer in its email that the offer was dependent on the ability to deliver 7,500 gallons at a time, Bluehorse had placed a condition on the acceptance of its quotation.
GAO said, “the record supports the agency’s conclusion the protester subsequently conditioned its quotation upon the ability to deliver a minimum of 7,500 gallons of fuel at a time.”
In other words, the contractor tried to change the rules. It did not matter whether the government had the capacity to hold the amount Bluehorse wanted to provide. All that mattered was that the government wanted one thing, and Bluehorse insisted on providing another.
GAO denied the protest.
The government may have been throwing its weight around. But it can. Whether it is diesel fuel, destroyers, or donuts, when the government says it wants X, the contractor typically has to provide X.