Justice computer ID contract snagged by second protest

GAO ruled in favor of 2011 protest.

A contested Office of Justice Programs contract for federally mandated identity verification services has been hit with a second protest from the same vendor, agency officials told Nextgov.

The protestor, NikSoft, in fall 2011, already had challenged the award to competitor LS3 Technologies for software and labor to establish the required Federal Identity, Credential and Access Management program. FICAM is a governmentwide strategy for securing the computer logins and smartcard credentials of federal employees.

More than six months after being handed the job, LS3 has finished recommending and receiving approval for the product, according to OJP’s Office of the Chief Information Officer. LS3 still must purchase the technology, install it and then configure the settings to comply with government requirements.

Agency spokeswoman Sabra Horne said OJP had not anticipated the second protest. “Clearly, it’s another wrinkle that’s unfolded. Clearly, it hasn’t gone as we originally thought,” she said. “It sounds like OCIO is continuing to move forward.”

The Government Accountability Office in February sided with NikSoft’s first complaint, ruling OJP should review the fairness of the award and hire NikSoft if the evaluation shows LS3’s proposal to be inferior.

OJP, a Justice Department agency, in April reported back that a reassessment again found LS3 was the superior candidate.

Unsatisfied with the outcome, NikSoft has lodged another protest with GAO, arguing the new award justification is “unreasonable and violated law and regulation and should be terminated.”

In 2011, OJP already had assigned LS3 an $844,122 job as part of the five-year multimillion-dollar contract. NikSoft provided Nextgov with a redacted version of the new petition, filed on May 7, that states the company is asking GAO to rule that LS3 be replaced with NikSoft.

Ralph O. White, GAO managing associate general counsel for procurement law, confirmed receipt of the second protest and said his office has until Aug. 15 to issue a verdict.

As a congressional watchdog agency, GAO also audits federal projects for waste, fraud and abuse. But, GAO spokesman Charles Young said, “bid protests are legal decisions where only legal issues are decided so we certainly can’t weigh in on” the impact of the dispute.

OJP, which funds state and local law enforcement initiatives, manages about $10 billion in grants to prevent youth violence, treat substance abuse and support other crime-fighting activities. The ID project is intended to prohibit access to agency computers, unless a user swipes a smartcard. Since 2004, all federal personnel and contractors have been required to use credentials embedded with digital fingerprints and photos for government networks. But the supplied cards largely have gone unused because most agencies lack card readers.

Justice Programs picked a contractor based on, in order of importance, corporate experience, record of work performance, technical qualifications of contractor staff and the proposal’s approach. This year, NikSoft received an “exceptional” grade -- the highest level -- for its approach, while its other abilities were deemed “acceptable,” according to a redacted copy of the second protest. LS3 received an overall rating of “exceptional” for its proposal.

OJP was seeking a strategy that would offer the best value, not necessarily the lowest price. NikSoft’s offer for the first order on the project was $374,423.58 and LS3 proposed $494,122. The agency determined that LS3’s higher quality offering, while more expensive, was worth the trade-off. During the second review, Justice Programs for the first time altered the cost of NikSoft’s proposal to reflect the longer hours its approach would entail. Weighted this way, NikSoft’s bid came in at a higher price than LS3’s.

“Based upon the technical ratings and the price analysis, the agency determined that the award to LS3 represents the best value to the government,” Jennifer Streets, an agency contracting officer, wrote in an April 26 letter to NikSoft.

NikSoft’s attorney argued his client’s proposal contains the same strengths as LS3’s proposal, as well as additional pluses absent from the LS3 offer. “OJP relied upon most of these same strengths in LS3’s technical proposal to support its exceptional rating of LS3, but ignored these same strengths in NikSoft’s proposal,” wrote Ron Hutchinson, the lawyer for NikSoft.

According to the protest, recommendations from NikSoft’s previous customers received nearly perfect scores. Its marks “should have resulted in an exceptional rating” but “they continued to be unreasonably ignored by OJP in its reevaluation [as acceptable],” Hutchinson wrote.

NikSoft additionally claimed Justice Programs evaluated the strengths of its technical staff differently from LS3’s strengths. The company’s strengths and an allegedly unsubstantiated weakness are all redacted in the document. NikSoft also called the upward adjustment of its proposed price “unreasonable, irrational and without any basis in fact.”

Hutchinson wrote, “had OJP performed an accurate evaluation that was equal and consistent with the terms of the [request for quotation] and applicable law, NikSoft would have received the contract award as the highest-rated, lowest-priced offeror.”

OJP officials said they could not comment on the ongoing litigation.

LS3 officials did not respond to a request for comment.