8(a) Program:

The Importance of Effective Fraud Prevention Controls

GAO-11-440T: Published: Mar 3, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 3, 2011.

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This testimony discusses the results of our prior investigation of the Small Business Administration's (SBA) 8(a) Business Development Program. SBA's 8(a) program, named for a section of the Small Business Act, is a development program created to help small, disadvantaged businesses compete in the American economy and access the federal procurement market. To participate in the program, a firm must be certified as meeting several criteria, including: be a small business as defined by SBA; be unconditionally owned and controlled by one or more socially and economically disadvantaged individuals who are of good character and citizens of the United States; and show potential for success. Upon certification, firms can obtain federal contracts without competing fully and openly for the work. For example, agencies are permitted to enter into sole-source contracts after soliciting and negotiating with only one 8(a) company. They also can participate in restricted competitions for federal contracts, known as set-asides, open to only 8(a) companies. In March 2010, GAO issued two companion reports on the 8(a) program, one focused on internal control procedures and processes that SBA has implemented to ensure that only eligible firms participate in the program and one focused on fraud prevention. This testimony is based on the latter report, and addresses three issues: (1) whether ineligible firms were participating in the 8(a) program, (2) the results of our proactive testing of the application process, and (3) strengths and weaknesses in SBA's fraud prevention system.

This testimony summarizes our findings on each of the three issues discussed in our report. Specifically, we found that: Ineligible firms are participating in the 8(a) program. We identified 14 firms that received set-aside or sole-source 8(a) contracts worth $325 million through fraud or abuse. These 14 firms received another $1.2 billion in other federal obligations since entering the 8(a) program, including $17 million in awards through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. We found evidence that showed that officials at 13 of these firms misrepresented their eligibility for the program to fraudulently acquire or maintain 8(a) status and obtain federal contracts awarded with limited or no competition. Examples include underreporting adjusted net worth and serving as a "pass-through" for non-8(a) companies. In the case of a pass-through, an 8(a) firm receives the sole-source or set-aside contract, but contrary to program requirements, work is performed and managed by a non-8(a) company. We also determined that SBA staff responsible for annually assessing firm eligibility allowed 3 firms to remain in the 8(a) program and receive contracts despite clear evidence provided by company officials during annual reviews that showed they were no longer eligible. For example, SBA allowed a firm to remain certified even though the president reported a salary which substantially exceeded the threshold. SBA's application process has both strengths and weaknesses. SBA had certain strengths in its 8(a) application process that allowed the agency to correctly determine that three of the four bogus firms from our proactive testing were not eligible for the 8(a) program. We also identified vulnerabilities that demonstrate weaknesses ineligible firms could exploit to fraudulently receive program certification. In the first of our three unsuccessful applications, SBA stated that it denied our application because the firm lacked the financial capacity to perform 8(a) contracts. For the other two cases, SBA raised concerns about our eligibility based on the presidents' adjusted net worth. The agency also questioned control of one of these firms. SBA provided us with such thorough comments that we determined we could not overcome the deficiencies and eligibility issues identified in both applications, so we abandoned them. However, we obtained 8(a) certification for one bogus firm using fabricated documentation and fictitious owner information. SBA's fraud prevention system has both strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses exist in SBA's controls for preventing, detecting, monitoring, and investigating fraud and abuse in the 8(a) program. Fraud prevention requires a system of controls which, in their aggregate, minimize the likelihood of fraud occurring while maximizing the possibility of detecting any fraudulent activity that may transpire. Fraud prevention systems set forth what actions constitute fraudulent conduct and specifically spell out who in the organization handles fraud matters under varying circumstances. A well-designed fraud prevention system should consist of three crucial elements: (1) upfront preventive controls, (2) detection and monitoring, and (3) investigations and prosecutions. For the 8(a) program this would mean effective (1) front-end controls at the application stage, (2) fraud detection and monitoring of firms already in the program, and (3) the aggressive prosecution or suspension and debarment of individuals committing fraud. In our report we describe specific strengths and weaknesses that we identified during the course of our review. For example, a strength we identified was SBA's use of certain third-party sources, such as Dun and Bradstreet and the Credit Bureaus, to verify some information about our bogus firm that was certified for the program. Nevertheless, these controls did not allow SBA to identify the fake documents we submitted.

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