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Watchdog: Accountability

Sunlight Foundation sues GSA for federal contract docs

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A nonprofit watchdog has filed a Freedom of Information Act suit to force General Services Administration officials to release federal contract documents that are supposed to be publicly available.

The Sunlight Foundation is seeking copies of all contract notices posted by federal agencies on FedBizOpps.gov since the year 2000.

The suit was made necessary because the notices of federal contracting opportunities and awards offered since 2000 are typically archived after only a few months.

Sunlight said the FedBizOpps.gov website's search system only goes back one year, thus effectively hiding older ones from public view.

When Sunlight earlier this year sought the older dates, descriptions, awardees and award amounts, GSA said the information would be made available if the nonprofit filed a FOIA request.

But in September GSA told Sunlight that the agency will exclude certain information on contracts and awards by the departments of defense and homeland security.

The agency hasn't responded to questions about which FOIA exemptions it will cite to withhold that information.

The only other communications Sunlight has received from GSA on the FOIA came in July, when federal officials said they would charge $3,165 for the request, even though the nonprofit is exempted from reproduction fees.

The agency later said it would waive the fees as requested, but has yet to produce the documents sought by Sunlight.

"These notices would allow members of the press, researchers and our developers to analyze government spending patterns, to look for inaccuracies, corruption and waste," Sunlight said regarding its suit.

"GSA never made an actual determination regarding Sunlight’s FOIA Request — the agency never produced documents, indicated the scope of the documents it would produce or when they would be produced, the exemptions it will claim, or advised Sunlight of its appeal rights," the group said.

"GSA’s failure to respond within the 20-business day statutory time limit constitutes a constructive denial of Sunlight’s FOIA Request."

The FedBizOpps site contains important information about government spending, such as how much was spent during the government shutdown.

But because of the limited search ability, older contracts can be nearly impossible to find. The contract for healthcare.gov no longer comes up through an FBO search, for instance, Sunlight pointed out.

The site also gives notice and an agency's official justification for awarding sole-source contracts instead of the competitive process normally required by federal law.

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