GAO Lacks Jurisdiction Over Debarment Disputes

The GAO lacks jurisdiction to decide whether an agency improperly suspended or debarred a contractor from federal government contracting.

In a recent bid protest decision, the GAO dismissed a protest filed by a debarred contractor, holding that the protester’s underlying challenge to its debarment was a matter for resolution by the contracting agency, not the GAO.

The GAO’s bid protest decision in Aria Target Logistics Services, B-408308.14; B-409055.2 (Feb. 27, 2014) involved an Air Force solicitation for regional trucking services in Afghanistan.  Aria Target Logistics Services submitted a proposal.  However, ATL had been proposed for debarment, and the firm’s name placed on the exclusion list in the System for Award Management.  As a result, the Air Force excluded ATL’s proposal from consideration.

ATL filed a GAO bid protest.  ATL acknowledged that it had been proposed for debarment, but disputed the basis for proposing the firm for debarment and placing it on the exclusion list.  ATL also pointed out that the FAR permits an agency to make an award to an excluded firm if the agency head determines that a compelling reason exists to do so.  ATL argued that the Air Force unreasonably determined that a compelling reason did not exist to award it the contract.

Citing its Bid Protest Regulations, the GAO wrote, “our Office does not review protests that an agency improperly suspended or debarred a contractor from receiving government contracts.”  The GAO continued, “[b]ecause the FAR sets forth specific procedures for both imposing and challenging a suspension or debarment action . . . the appropriate forum for resolving such disputes (including, as ATL claims here, procedural deficiencies) is with the contracting agency.”

With respect to ATL’s “compelling reason” argument, the GAO wrote, “nothing in FAR § 9.405 requires that, prior to a contracting officer’s rejection of an excluded offeror’s proposal, the agency head must first consider whether a compelling reason exists not to exclude the contractor’s offer.  Instead, the FAR simply allows an agency head to reach such a conclusion.”  Because there is no requirement to consider whether a compelling reason exists, the Air Force could not have acted unreasonably by failing to do so.  The GAO denied the protest.

The GAO’s bid protest jurisdiction is limited.  As the Aria Target Logistics Services case demonstrates, that limited jurisdiction does not extend to considerations of whether a procuring agency properly excluded an offeror from government contracting.

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