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Tracking Contractors and Lobbyists, and a Congressional Intervention

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Add to the list of Freedom of Information Act requests sent out in pursuit of forms SF-LLL one requesting information related to the contract mentioned in this April 20, 2005, story from the Hill, concerning a federal effort to develop and distribute "intelligent transportation technology." As I understand it, this technology lets users access traffic information in real time, to see where tie-ups are and, hopefully, avoid them on their way home. (I think Al Gore might have had this system on his mind during the 2000 campaign, when he made livability one of his themes.) Right now, you can see what such a system would look like at Traffic.com, in part because Traffic.com (actually, its government services division known as Mobility Technologies) was the company that, in 1998, was awarded a federal contract to develop the technology in a few, test cities. Here's The Hill on what happened in 2001, when intelligent transportation technology was supposed to be offered to 50 additional cities:

...[The] Department of Transportation (DoT) attempted to open the program up to competitive bidding in other cities. But a January 2001 letter to Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater from Darrell Wilson, Shuster’s chief of staff, reads, “In no way was this intended that DoT conduct a competition for the awarding of funds.” Ultimately, after more letters back and forth, Shuster triumphed and the program was not competitively rebid, allowing Mobility Technologies access to the entire $50 million. According to critics of the legislation, Traffic.com’s favorable treatment by Congress stems from its facility in playing the Washington game. From 2000 to 2004, the company enlisted the services of at least 10 lobbying firms...

Now, remember what the exercise is here. We suspect that, when lobbyists are hired to influence federal contracting decisions, there is the possibility that procurement decisions will be made, not on the basis of who makes the best mousetrap, but rather on the basis of who has the better connections. We have learned that there is a disclosure form, SF-LLL, that must be filed "for each payment or agreement to make payment to any lobbying entity for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of any agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with a covered Federal action," with the phrase "a covered federal action" here meaning a federal contract, grant, loan, loan agreement, loan insurance, or a cooperative agreement. So right now we are attempting to use the Freedom of Information Act where we have reason to suspect that SF-LLLs may have been filed, as a first test to see how difficult it is to get these records. So far, we've sent requests to Defense, the General Services Agency, the Coast Guard, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and now Transportation. Ideally, in the future, contracting databases might include a notation saying that for a particular contract, a form SF-LLL had been filed--allowing the taxpaying public, at a glance, to distinguish between contracts awarded through the routine appropriations process, and those awarded in part because a company hired a lobbyist to influence someone in government to award the contract.

For those who don't want to hear about the labor pains of an investigation, read no further: quite a bit of tedium follows. For those mildly interested in the new wrinkle the tedium gives to our investigation, you can skip down to the last paragraph.

If you search FedSpending.org for Traffic.Com, for Mobility Technologies, or for Argus Networks (the name of the company until it changed it in 1999), you come up with zip. I won't bore you with all the details, but the reason this is important is that when making a Freedom of Information Act request for a federal contract, it helps to know the number of the contract you're asking for and, just as important, the agency that issued the contract. If you don't know what you're asking for, and who to ask for it from, the already slow and cumbersome FOIA process becomes glacial. You can of course, still pull it off: FOIA any and all contracts--or a list of same--issued between, say, January 1, 1998, and the present by the Department of Transportation to Traffic.com, AKA Mobility Technologies, AKA Argus Networks--and hope that the right one jumps out at you. In this case, though, you would be disappointed.

That's because the contract referred to in the above-quoted Hill story appears not to have been issued to Mobility Technologies (for simplicity's sake, let's stick to calling the company that for now), but insted to Signal Corp. I found this out, after a lot of flailing around, when I came across these documents, copies of a preliminary draft of the form S-1 and appendices that Traffic.com filed in November 2005 with the Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with its Initial Public Offering. It's a long PDF (441 pages) but if you scroll down to page 330, you'll find the original contract numbers and the task order for Mobility Technologies' work. On page 335 of the PDF, you find the office that issued the contract--the Transportation Administrative Services Center.

Since the contract was issued, Signal Corp. was bought out by a company called Veridian, which was in turn acquired by General Dynamics. If you search for General Dynamics or Veridian in the 2002 Fedspending database, you can find contract number DTTS59-99-D-00445, the one under which Mobility Technologies was awarded the task order that I think we're interested in.

At this point, I don't know why the contract was done this way, but it does seem a little odd--if the program was important enough to draw the attention of so many members of Congress (go back to The Hill's story to see what I mean), why did the money to implement it come from a task order tacked onto what appears to be something of an unrelated contract given to another firm?

Now, for the new wrinkle: Generally, it's almost impossible to get information from the federal government on subcontractors (that is, the companies that government contractors hire to do government work). However, Form SF-LLL, handy little document that is, specifies that subawardees that lobby also have to file: "Check the appropriate classification of the reporting entity that designates if it is, or expects to be, a prime or subaward recipient. Identify the tier of the subawardee, e.g., the first subawardee of the prime is the 1st tier. Subawards include but are not limited to subcontracts, subgrants and contract awards under grants." So, potentially, in addition to determining what contractors are lobbying for contracts, if we got our hands on a government-wide stack of SF-LLLs, we could also find out what subcontractors are lobbying, and have the first set of data on this underexamined facet of federal spending.