GAO Finds Offeror’s Protest of OCI Exclusion Untimely

To be timely, a GAO bid protest challenging the terms of the solicitation must be filed no later than the proposal submission deadline.

A recent GAO decision affirmed that, at least in some cases, this deadline applies to an offeror’s elimination from competition based on an organizational conflict of interest. Because the offeror knew of its potential conflict and the agency’s position on its eligibility before its proposal was submitted, its post-evaluation protest was untimely. GAO dismissed its protest.

The facts in A Squared Joint Venture, B-413139 et al. (Aug. 23, 2016) are relatively straightforward. A Squared Joint Venture (“A2JV”) was a joint venture formed by two companies, including Al-Razaq Computing Services. Al-Razaq was the incumbent contractor under a contract for acquisition and business support services at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (“MSFC”).

Al-Razaq’s contract allowed it access to MSFC’s procurement-related information and, in some cases, required it to be involved with MSFC’s acquisition efforts. So its contract included a limitation on future contracting that, among other things, prohibited Al-Razaq and any of its subcontractors from performing or assisting with the performance of any other contract issued by MSFC during the performance of the incumbent contract.

In February 2016, NASA issued the follow-on solicitation to Al-Razaq’s incumbent contract. The solicitation sought many of the same acquisition support functions that Al-Razaq was currently performing, and also included an identical limitation on future contracting clause.

Later in February, Al-Razaq’s Acquisition Team Lead met with the contracting officer to discuss whether Al-Razaq personnel performing the incumbent contract could assist with the preparation of the offeror’s proposal. The contracting officer told Al-Razaq that it needed to implement a firewall to separate both the information and personnel associated with its incumbent performance from those personnel preparing the proposal.

A2JV submitted its offer on March 18. But contrary to the contracting officer’s instruction, its proposal was hand-delivered to the MSFC contracting activity by (then-) current and former Al-Razaq program managers under the incumbent effort. In fact, Al-Razaq’s program manager “informed agency officials that he had been involved in the preparation of the A2JV proposal, and had spent 10-12 hours a day for the last two weeks working on the proposal.”

NASA eliminated A2JV’s proposal from competition on May 9, citing its organizational conflict of interest—specifically, its unequal access to information. Explained by GAO, “an unequal access to information OCI exists where a firm has access to nonpublic information as part of its performance of a government contract, and where that information may provide a firm a competitive advantage in a later competition for a government contract.”

Justifying A2JV’s exclusion, the contracting officer explained that Al-Razaq’s incumbent performance includes its support of MSFC procurement activities, and allows Al-Razaq “access to the full breadth of sensitive contractual and financial information necessary for the administration of MSFC contracts.” Al-Razaq was required to screen new business opportunities to avoid a conflict of interest, yet failed to do so. Its use of the existing program manager created an impermissible OCI.

A2JV protested its elimination, challenging the determination that it had unequal access to information and was required to firewall its employees. NASA, in its response, argued that the protest was untimely because it was not filed before the deadline to submit proposals.

GAO agreed with NASA. It explained that “Al-Razaq (and A2JV) was fully aware prior to closing of the fundamental ground rules by which the [] competition was being conducted.” To this point, it said “prior to the closing time for the receipt of proposals, A2JV was aware of the operative facts regarding the existence of an actual or potential OCI involving itself, as well as the agency’s position on the offeror’s eligibility to compete[.]” If A2JV believed that a firewall was not necessary, it should have protested that requirement prior to the RFP’s closing date.

A2JV’s untimely protest was dismissed.

Knowing the deadline to file a bid protest can be tricky. If a protest challenges the ground rules of a solicitation, it must be filed by the time proposals are due. As A Squared Joint Venture confirms, GAO will dismiss any protest that does not meet the filing deadline–including, potentially, one involving the government’s position on an alleged OCI.