By now, most government contractors are (or most certainly should be) aware of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) provisions governing organizational conflicts of interest. While OCIs have been a hot issue for some time in the federal procurement world, OCIs are becoming an increasing risk area in the state procurement arena as well.
By way of background, pursuant to the FAR, an “OCI arises when, because of other relationships or circumstances, a contractor may be unable, or potentially unable, to render impartial advice or assistance to the government, the contractor’s objectivity in performing the contract work is or might be impaired, and/or the contractor would have an unfair competitive advantage.” FAR 2.101. There are three general categories of OCIs: biased ground rules; impaired objectivity; and, unequal access to information. If not adequately mitigated or, when necessary, avoided, an actual or potential OCI can result in a vendor’s disqualification.
Many contractors have been surprised to learn that a growing number of states have adopted OCI rules that follow these FAR principles. Some states, such as Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota, and Illinois have codified OCI rules in their respective state administrative or procurement codes. In other states OCI rules have been adopted at the agency-level. For instance the California, Tennessee and Washington Departments of Transportation have adopted OCI rules. Some states, such as California, have also adopted OCI rules via standard state contract provisions.
Even where there is no specific state OCI rule or standard contract clause, state contractors are not necessarily off the OCI hook. For instance, where federal grant money is used at the state level, such as in healthcare and education procurements, federal regulations sometimes require that the state grantee consider OCI issues before making award. Moreover, many state procurement codes have rules that mirror the general federal procurement requirements regarding competition and fair and equitable treatment. Thus, for instance, a disappointed bidder could argue in the context of a post-award state protest that an awardee with an unequal access OCI has an unfair competitive advantage that runs afoul of the general state requirements for competition.
In short, OCIs are not simply a federal procurement matter. State contractors must also beware.