HUBZone Program:

Fraud and Abuse Identified in Four Metropolitan Areas

GAO-09-519T: Published: Mar 25, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 25, 2009.

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Created in 1997, the HUBZone program provides federal contracting assistance to small businesses in economically distressed communities, or HUBZone areas, with the intent of stimulating economic development in those areas. On July 17, 2008, we testified before Congress that SBA's lack of controls over the HUBZone program exposed the government to fraud and abuse and that SBA's mechanisms to certify and monitor HUBZone firms provide limited assurance that only eligible firms participate in the program. In our testimony, we identified 10 firms from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area that were participating in the HUBZone program even though they clearly did not meet eligibility requirements. Of the 10 firms, 6 did not meet both principal office and employee residency requirements while 4 met the principal office requirement but significantly failed the employee residency requirement. We reported in our July 2008 testimony that federal agencies had obligated a total of nearly $26 million in HUBZone contract obligations to these 10 firms since 2006. After the hearing, Congress requested that we perform a follow-on investigation. We describe the results of this investigation and further background about the HUBZone program in a companion report that is being made public today. This testimony will summarize our overall findings. Specifically, this testimony will address (1) whether cases of fraud and abuse in the program exist outside of the Washington, D.C., metro area; (2) what actions, if any, SBA has taken to establish an effective fraud prevention system for the HUBZone program; and (3) what actions, if any, SBA has taken on the 10 firms that we found misrepresented their HUBZone status in July 2008.

In summary, we found that fraud and abuse in the HUBZone program extends beyond the Washington, D.C., area. We identified 19 firms in Texas, Alabama, and California participating in the HUBZone program that clearly do not meet program requirements (i.e., principal office location or percentage of employees in HUBZone and subcontracting limitations). In fiscal years 2006 and 2007, federal agencies obligated nearly $30 million to these 19 firms for performance as the prime contractor on HUBZone contracts and a total of $187 million on all federal contracts. Although SBA has initiated steps to strengthen its internal controls as a result of our 2008 testimonies and report, substantial work remains for incorporating a fraud prevention system that includes effective fraud controls consisting of (1) front-end controls at the application stage, (2) fraud detection and monitoring of firms already in the program, and (3) the aggressive pursuit and prosecution of individuals committing fraud. SBA has taken some enforcement steps on the 10 firms previously identified by GAO that knowingly did not meet HUBZone program requirements. However, as of February 2009, according to SBA's Dynamic Small Business Web site, 7 of the 10 firms that we investigated were still HUBZone certified. SBA's failure to promptly remove firms from the HUBZone program and examine some of the most egregious cases from our testimony has resulted in an additional $7.2 million in HUBZone obligations and about $25 million in HUBZone contracts to these firms.

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