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Behind the Story: Multiple government websites help journalists get around FOIA requests


USASPENDING.GOV


Not having access to the list of firms disqualified from the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business program didn’t stop Dayton Daily News reporters from determining which companies were debarred from government contracts or from identifying some of the companies under investigation or disqualified from the program.

The article, “’Rent-a-vet’ scam proves costly to taxpayers, businesses,” gives readers a comprehensive look at the problems of the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business program and a specific look at businesses operating in Ohio.

Government watchdogs say hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds have gone to ineligible companies under the program, which calls upon all federal agencies to award at least 3 percent of the value of their contracts to disabled-vet businesses.

In some cases, business owners pretended to be decorated war heroes to obtain set-aside contracts, or served as front men for large corporations. More often, disabled veterans improperly partnered with other small businesses, having little say in the running of the companies and bringing almost nothing to the table except their disabled-vet status.

Reporters Andrew Tobias and Tom Beyerlein had about two months to write their story, so they used tools other than open records requests to determine which companies were under investigation.

You can “FOIA it and it takes three months or Google it and it might take 45 seconds,” Tobias said.

Tobias and Beyerlein used government websites, many of which Tobias got from the summer 2011 IRE Journal issue "Follow the Federal Money," to draw their conclusions.

The meat of their story came from usaspending.gov, which is a database of federal contracting information going back to 2000, Tobias said. They used the website’s filters to determine which firms received Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business contracts in Ohio and which firms received the contract in another state but did business in Ohio.

They took that information and using each company's D-U-N-S number, compared the companies that got contracts over the past five years to the companies listed on vetbiz.gov, which had to have passed new verification standards.

They found that half of the firms that received government contracts in the past were not currently verified as service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses. This information gave them an idea of the level of previous mismanagement, but didn't exactly explain why those firms were no longer on the verified list.

There are a number of reasons firms might not make it on the new list, which would include firms making procedural mistakes to defrauding the government. Because government agencies have different vetting processes, a firm might be turned away from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs but get approved at the Department of Defense, Tobias said.

To determine this Tobias and Beyerlein needed the list of the 1,800 disqualified firms, which was hard to find and took time.

“It’s an alphabet soup of federal agencies,” Tobias said, explaining how an appeal to retain Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business status might take different paths through multiple government agencies.

It was hard to figure out which departments to “shake down” for information, he said.

Once Tobias made the request he said, he got the “email equivalent of a long sigh.” A public affairs representative told him it would be hard to find the list.

“We are patiently waiting but because it involves firms that might be under investigation it adds another layer of difficulty in obtaining what we want,” Tobias said.

Despite slow response from the government and reports with redacted information, Tobias and Beyerlein were able to drill down to specific companies with questionable activity by using multiple websites. 

For example, they had access to a Department of Defense Inspector General report that mentioned a contract given to a questionable firm at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, but the name of the company and the date of the contract were redacted. So Tobias and Beyerlein tracked down the company name by using the contract dollar amount.  

They plugged the contract dollar amount into a spreadsheet from usaspending.gov to locate the contract and the company name. Next they used the company name in the Central Contractor Registration, to get the company’s D-U-N-S number and owner’s phone number.

They called the company’s owner to confirm that he had received the contract. To make sure the questionable company was no longer an approved Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business they went to vetbiz.gov and sure enough, the company, Piedmont Contracting & Design based in Mount Clemens, Mich. , was no longer listed.

Another website that was helpful was the Excluded Parties List System, which helped them find companies that had already been debarred. 

The U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Hearings and Appeals was also a useful resource. It provided a list of all appeals the Small Business Administration had ruled on, which helped them find many of the firms that had been disqualified. 

For other reporters considering stories like this one, Tobias said don’t be intimidated by the military beat.

Just “develop a friendly source that can be your river guide through the endless military acronyms” and get an iPhone app for military acronyms, he said.

“All the military jargon makes sense to me now,” he said. “And it’s only been a few months.”

 

Johanna Somers is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism

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