Back to the recent Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA) Technology Systems, Inc. (TSI) (ASBCA 59577) and the nine areas I believe are worth discussing:
- Supporting Material Overhead rate
- DCAA auditor independence
- DCAA’s right to change their mind in subsequent audits
- Tax vs. Book on depreciation issues
- Accrued Costs crossing fiscal year
- Unapproved subcontractors
- An excellent example of DCAA properly developing findings.
- Documenting consultants work product
The scratched out areas were discussed in previous articles. Today, I am going to talk about DCAA auditor independence. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.
DCAA Auditor Independence
CPA ethics drove me insane for years before I took the exam and the subsequent ethics exam. I often compare the profession’s complicated ethics rule to the Pharisees described in the New Testament. But beyond the esoteric ethic issues surrounding the audit of the town’s only bank by the town’s only CPA who is a customer of the bank, I want to focus on a couple of simple clear issues regarding DCAA auditor independence.
First, there is the general issue of questioning DCAA’s very ability to be independent. DCAA works for the government, often they work directly for the contractor’s “customer” DCMA. DCAA actually advertises their job as not finding the truth but finding “unallowable” tax dollars. From a common sense point, not a great argument for independence. As a comparison, I do not see the IRS’s primary focus on recovering tax dollars. The focus there seems a little more skewed toward finding the facts (truth).
While I may question DCAA’s institutional ability to be independent, I acknowledge they are granted this assumption of independence by statute. While DCAA in fact, may not be independent, such independence is assumed in order for the government to protect tax payers.
Some of the alternative’s may be worse. I have argued that the government hiring of outside CPA firms to conduct incurred cost proposal audits as destroying even the institutional illusion of independence. The outside CPA firms are contractors looking to keep the contract while, for good or bad, DCAA auditors enjoy some job security and thus a bit more independence. I even referred to the CPA firm contractors as “contractors” in management responses. Outside CPA firms are even more strongly motivated than DCAA to find “unallowable” costs on behalf of their actual customer.
Again, while moaning about the possible illusionary independence of DCAA, I accept it as an institution. This brings us to the second level of auditor independence: those cases where individual auditors, offices, branches, or even the institution abandon the illusionary independence and act in an unethical manner. There are those rare occasions when an auditor is “on a witch hunt” for the contractor, or at least the contractor comes to believe this.
The issue is discussed in several paragraphs of the TSI opinion on both the actual opinion and the dissenting opinion. The following paragraph gets to the heart of the matter:
TSI advances two somewhat related factual allegations that are relevant to its course of conduct legal theory, which we will discuss shortly: first, that the DCAA auditor who performed the initial work on the FY 2007 ICP audit was, for some unstated reason, biased against TSI; and second, that the DCAA had been much easier on it in past audits (app. br. at 3-5; app. reply br. at 10-11). In testimony presented by TSI, Mr. Fletcher, its CFO, characterized the first DCAA auditor, Ms. Waller, as having been “on a witch hunt” (tr. 2/165). Moreover, as discussed above, there was ample evidence of friction between Ms. Waller and TSI and early indications from TSI that it did not believe that it would get a “fair” audit from Ms. Waller. Nevertheless, the evidence also demonstrates that the preliminary work performed by Ms. Waller was not the end of the story, given the change in questioned costs demonstrated most clearly by Tables 1, 2, and 3 above. Moreover, the ACO credibly testified that her decisions regarding which costs to question were made independently (tr. 1/251 ), which is consistent with the back-and-forth which she attempted with TSI prior to issuing her COFD. We need not delve into these circumstances any further due to the fact that TSI, itself, has “concede[ d]” that its claim that the COFD should be set aside due to lack of auditor independence “cannot be sustained” (app. br. at 3).
Off the top of my head, I do not recall an incident where I concluded that a DCAA auditor’s personal bias interfered with an audit, but there were many occasions where the contractor thought so and I understood how they came to this belief. To be frank, I believe contractors take personally an auditor’s professional incompetence and see this incompetence as a witch hunt. Professional competence is not simply technical but also encompasses behavior with the audit subject, and not all DCAA auditors show a mastery of this area and some of them experience a strong reaction when a contractor questions their actions or requests.
All of this simply reminds us that DCAA auditors are human beings working, in my opinion, in a less than ideal envrioment. They are asked to function as independent auditors in a instution that places enormous value on finding contractor errors. I do believe the vast majority of them rise above this pressure.
Another example of where it appears personal is when we remember that DCAA auditors are thrust out on audits with a great deal of authority and not always the experience, knowledge, or support, to exercise that power in the best way possible. DCAA is working hard to address this issue, but the last crisis took a serious toll on the agency’s institutional knowledge. I remember a young DCAA auditor threatening me with a fraud referral because he concluded that a working trial balance was an instrument to defraud the government. Many such auditors are now supervisors.
There are many findings of auditor incompetence, even serious allegations of DCAA malpractice, but I believe it is rarely, if ever, personal.
What is interesting about the TSI case is that all three of the judges were willing to look at evidence of bias. That is a warning shot across the bow of the ship DCAA.