Below is my column in USA Today on the use of set aside categories based on race, gender, or other criteria for government contracts. While the set aside issue arose in the recent controversy over Braulio Castillo, there are legitimate questions that should be discussed over the efficiencies and equities of the system. There is also the question of self-identification on these issues. Veteran’s status is easier to confirm, though in the Castillo case we saw the definition can be wildly out of whack. However, we have seen controversies involving people who self-identify as having minority status based on questionable basis such as the controversy over Senator Elizabeth Warren who listed herself as a minority due to Native American blood. There is presumably some criteria for such claims when made in government contracts but I am not sure who where that line is drawn. The real question is whether it would not be better for Congress to directly fund programs to help minority groups rather than require special treatment in government contracting. Hopefully, we can have such a debate without rancor and personal recriminations. There are good-faith reasons to debate whether government contracting should be based solely on the best price and product determination in my view. It is not questioning the purpose of this policy but the means used to achieve it.
Braulio Castillo seemed exactly what the government was looking for. He was CEO of a Virginia company who was listed as a service-disabled veteran. That status allowed Castillo to secure $500 million in government contracts under special rules. Castillo described his terrible disability as just one of the “crosses that I bear due to my service to our great country.” Others now describe it as a shameless scam.
Castillo, 43, was a U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School student when he hurt himself playing football. Decades later, he filed for service-disabled veteran status with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bizarrely, the VA granted it, even though Castillo went on to play football for the University of San Diego and never served in a military unit. With this status, he was awarded a half-a-billion dollars in contracts despite little experience.
Castillo is certainly not the sole measure of the programs that give preferential treatment in government contracting based on race, sex, geography, business size and disabled status. However, his case shines a light on the system’s darker side.
For years, contractors have complained that companies game the system by adding front owners with the right status. Such was the case of the Virginia company GTSI, which won contracts for IT and integration services in part because one of its partners was considered a “small business.” One e-mail, cited as from a GTSI vice president, revealed that the subcontractor was “very open to the concept of GTSI doing ALL the work” and just taking the money as a front.
The main reason for concern is not fraud, however. It is efficiency. The set-asides downgrade competence, performance and price in government contracts to focus competition for public money on the special status of corporate owners. In writing the laws governing government contracts, Congress simply threw in elements unconnected to the merit of government contracts while demanding reports on the percentage of contracts benefiting these groups.
For example, in 1994, Congress mandated that at least 5% of contracts go to businesses majority-owned by women. Today, roughly 3% of contracts are set aside based on the gender of the owner. Similar set-asides and preferences are accorded by race and service-related injuries. At times, the world of government contracting preferences has become so bizarre that set-aside groups have fought about preferences within preferences. In one case, 25% of the set-aside for small businesses were further set aside for minority-owned or women-owned businesses, but minority businesses objected that woman end up getting too much of the contracting pie.
There is no question about the laudable goals of these programs in expanding minority and women-owned business. Rather, it is the means used to achieve those goals that is the problem. Like special deals in the tax code, it is easy to create such preferences for particular groups without the need to appropriate any money directly to benefit a group. Laws and regulations stretching across dozens of federal departments and agencies have the special set-asides or preferences for “veteran-owned small business, HUBZone small business, or women-owned small business.” Agencies further mandate special treatment for “African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, (American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, or Native Hawaiians); Asian Pacific Americans (persons with origins from Japan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Samoa, Guam, U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Laos, Cambodia, or Taiwan, Asian Indian Americans; and members of other groups designated from time to time.”
Few are prepared to question the wisdom of such an approach out of fear of being called misogynistic, anti-veteran or anti-Samoan. Agencies are left dealing with a tangle of detailed rules while the public expects them to be quickly and efficiently carrying out government business. It is a recipe for inefficient government, a frustrated public and little accountability.
As for Castillo, his contracting days are over. Not because of any reform, mind you. Last month, police charged him in the death of his wife in his Northern Virginia mansion. Despite his classification as 30% disabled, police say he was able to use the other 70% to beat his wife to death and then hoist her to the ceiling to fake a suicide.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
May 7, 2014