Do You Compete With Federal Prison Industries?

October 7, 2009 on 3:44 pm | In Bids and Proposals, Marketing to the Government | Comments Off

Under applicable federal procurement rules certain products are required to be purchased from Federal Prison Industries (FPI). These purchases are intended to give prisoners productive work and a method to pay, at least in part, for their upkeep and maintenance. The problem is that there are companies in the commercial marketplace that are effectively frozen out of the federal market since they produced the same things as FPI.

In a recent decision, GAO had occasion to review the statutory and regulatory underpinnings of the current role of FPI in federal procurements.  Ashland Sales & Service Company. B-401481,September 15, 2009.

 FPI is a self-supporting, wholly-owned government corporation that was established to provide employment and training to federal penal inmates involving the production of commodities for consumption in prisons or for sale to government agencies. 18 U.S.C. §§ 4121, 4122 (2006); Federal Acquisition Regulation §§ 8.601(a), (b). For DOD, the requirements for the procurement of products from FPI are defined by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2002, (citations omitted).

In 2008 Congress changed the process for determining when FPI is a preferred provider. This law created a new procedure for obtaining products from FPI for situations where FPI has been determined to have a “significant market share” of the product category in question as follows:

The Secretary of Defense may purchase a product listed in the latest edition of the Federal Prison Industries catalog for which Federal Prison Industries has a significant market share only if the Secretary uses competitive procedures for the procurement of the product or makes an individual purchase under a multiple award contract in accordance with the competition requirements applicable to such contract. In conducting such a competition, the Secretary shall consider a timely offer from Federal Prison Industries.
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For purposes of this subsection [2410n(b)], Federal Prison Industries shall be treated as having a significant share of the market for a product if the Secretary, in consultation with the Administrator of Federal Procurement Policy, determines that the Federal Prison Industries share of the Department of Defense market for the category of products including such product is greater than 5 percent.

So if FPI has captured 5% or more of a market segment, then DOD publishes that list from time to time as the DOD determines necessary. In the particular procurement before the GAO here, the product was “8405, Outerwear, Men’s” and it had been added to the list on June 3, 2009, with an effective date thirty days hence. Based on a solicitation issued within this window, and after conducting market research on these items as required by the statute, the agency decided to obtain them from FPI non-competitively. The protestor argued that since FPI now had a greater then 5% market share, the use of the set-aside was improper. The issues before GAO included the discretion of DOD in publishing the list with a later effective date, and the proper role of FPI in the federal marketplace.
The GAO analysis began with the interpretation of the relevant statute. For GAO and other decision makers when conducting statutory interpretation, they start with an analysis of the language in the law – does it provide an unambiguous expression of the intent of Congress? If so, the analysis ends there because the unambiguous intent of Congress must be given effect. (citations omitted) If, however, the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the decision maker will turn to the interpretation given to the statute by an agency responsible for administering the law; in this case DOD (citations omitted). Generally if the agency has interpreted ambiguous provision of the statute through a process of rulemaking or adjudication, the decision maker will provide great deference to that interpretation unless the resulting regulation or ruling is procedurally defective, arbitrary, or capricious in substance, or manifestly contrary to the statute. (citations omitted) On the other hand, where the agency’s position reflects an informal interpretation, deference is not warranted; in these cases, the agency’s interpretation is “entitled to respect” only to the extent it has the “power to persuade.” (citations omitted) The weight given to an interpretation under this lesser standard depends “upon the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those factors which give it power to persuade.”

So in a nutshell, and these rules apply whenever statutory or regulatory interpretation is required to resolve a dispute, if agencies follow a formal process of rulemaking/interpretation under authority granted to them by Congress then the courts and boards will generally follow that interpretation. If the interpretation is merely advisory, or informal in its creation, it is provided much less deference, but is given weight to the degree it makes sense and is persuasive. These are good rules to remember when reading laws or regulations.

Another rule of statutory interpretation cited by GAO is the rule that “[a] statute is passed as a whole and not in parts or sections and is animated by one general purpose and intent. Consequently, each part or section should be construed in connection with every other part or section as to produce a harmonious whole.” (citations omitted).

In this case, GAO determined that the timing of the update was proper, and even though a determination had been made that FPI had a greater than 5% market share for these products, the formal publication provided for 30 days to become effective. Thus the procurement from FPI under a non-competitive acquisition was proper.

So there are two lessons to consider here. If you compete with FPI, you will not have an opportunity to sell to the government unless and until FPI reaches a 5% market share. You might make your product commercially unique in a way that meets a government need, but is not copied by FPI. Intellectual property protection might be one way to do this. Second, this GAO opinion provides some excellent guidance on how adjudicative bodies interpret statutes and regulations. As confusing as they may be sometimes, these are standard rules of interpretation. Given the number of regulations and statutes that are involved in government procurement, these rules are worth remembering and applying.

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