In a recent decision by the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”), AutoFlex, Inc., B-415926, April 19, 2018, the GAO considered a challenge to the agency’s termination of a contract for the convenience of the government where the termination flows from a defect the contracting agency perceived in the award process.
In this bid protest, service-disabled veteran-owned small business (“SDVOSB”) AutoFlex, Inc. (“AutoFlex”), protested the termination of its contract for the lease of executive vehicles with the Department of Veterans Affairs (the “Agency”) and subsequent award of a contract to small business concern District Fleet, LLC (“District Fleet”). AutoFlex alleged that the Agency unreasonably terminated its contract, failed to set aside the procurement for SDVOSB concerns, and failed to provide AutoFlex with a debriefing. On November 30, 2017, the Agency issued the solicitation as a small business set-aside for the lease of four 2018 Chevrolet Suburbans for a period of one base year and four option years. The solicitation indicated award would be made on a lowest-price, technically acceptable basis.
District Fleet submitted the lowest-priced quotation, which the Agency initially found unacceptable. AutoFlex, the incumbent contractor, provided the next lowest-priced quotation and the Agency awarded the contract to AutoFlex on December 20, 2017. Subsequently, District Fleet filed an agency-level protest of the contract award to AutoFlex. Upon further review, the Agency determined that the evaluation of District Fleet’s quotation was erroneous and found the quotation to be technically acceptable. As a result, the Agency terminated AutoFlex’s contract and awarded the contract to District Fleet. AutoFlex then protested the termination of its contract to the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”).
In its decision, GAO noted that the GAO generally will decline to review the termination of contracts for the convenience of the government as those actions are matters of contract administration. However, the GAO will review the propriety of the termination where the termination stems from a defect perceived by the contracting agency in the award process. In which case, the GAO will analyze the award procedures underling the termination for the limited purpose of determining whether the initial aware may have been improper, and, if so, the appropriateness of the corrective action advanced by the agency in remedying the impropriety. Even if the agency’s corrective action is not the most advantageous to the government, the GAO will not object as long as the corrective action taken is appropriate.
Here, the GAO found no basis in the record to object to the agency’s termination of AutoFlex’s contract. The Agency reasonably concluded that it had misevaluated District Fleet’s quotation and corrected the error. Additionally, the GAO found AutoFlex’s challenge to the Agency’s determination to set the procurement aside for small business concerns as opposed to SDVOSB concerns as an untimely challenge to the terms of the solicitation. During the solicitation phase, the Agency posted a response to a question as to whether the solicitation was in accordance with the Veterans First Contracting Act by stating “[t]his requirement is being solicited in accordance with the Veterans First Contracting Program.” The GAO found no basis in the record to conclude that the Agency’s response was misleading. The Agency did not amend the solicitation to change the set-aside designation, nor did the Agency add VA Acquisition Regulation clauses 852.219-11, VA Notice of Total Veteran-Owned Small Business Set-Aside or 852.219-10, VA Notice of Total Service-Disabled Veterans-Owned Small Business Set-Aside to the solicitation. The solicitation clearly designated the requirement set-aside for small business concerns. The GAO found that in viewing the matter in a manner most favorable to the protester, the Agency’s response could be construed as a patent ambiguity. A patent solicitation ambiguity exists where the solicitation contains an obvious, gross, or glaring error apparent from the face of the solicitation. As such, a patent solicitation ambiguity must be protested prior to the closing time for receipt of proposals or quotations to be considered untimely. Finally, the GAO also dismissed AutoFlex’s protest of the Agency’s failure to provide it with a debriefing since the adequacy and conduct of a debriefing, including the failure to provide a debriefing are procedural matters that do not involve the validity of an award.
Decisions such as AutoFlex serve as two important reminders to both contractors and agencies alike. First, the GAO will not object to an agency’s response to a defect in the procurement process as long as the corrective action taken is appropriate. Additionally, contractors should closely adhere to GAO timeliness regulations when determining whether to protest a patent solicitation ambiguity. The untimeliness of such a challenge may prevent a contractor’s success on the merits without even a chance of its allegations being heard in such instances.