Before the fall of 1983, few Americans had ever heard of Berkley Bedell.
A subdued Iowa congressman, he had spent a largely unremarkable decade in Washington, plodding a gradual trajectory that would ultimately give him the gavel of an obscure oversight subcommittee.
That’s when he discovered the Pentagon’s $435 hammer.
Almost overnight, Bedell became a crusader against overpriced procurement; and that hammer became an iconic emblem of government waste that would endure for a generation.
Thirty-five years later, taxpayer watchdogs have seized a new symbol of government waste: behemoth multinational consulting firms that are hired by federal and state governments to perform myriad services ranging from information technology, to payroll, to voter registration databases.
Florida is one of several big budget states that doles out tens of millions of dollars per year to dozens of contracting firms, some of which have well-documented, troubling records of waste and incompetence. Critics say procurement officials have a fiduciary obligation to carefully scrutinize these firms before committing taxpayers to long-term, lucrative contracts.
One example of a contract that didn’t go well for Florida is Deloitte’s botched redo of the state’s unemployment benefits system. The state paid north of $60 million for the system, and when it was “ready” it left thousands of Floridians without the unemployment checks they were due.
Fast forward five years and a new bombshell federal report found Accenture Federal Services, a subsidiary of Dublin, Ireland-based Accenture, had charged taxpayers $13.6 million to recruit just two agents for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB).
In a scathing report, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General identified systemic performance issues with the consulting company. It found that ten months into a five-year, $297 million contract, Accenture “risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.”
Nearly a year before the IG released his explosive audit, there were plenty of warning signs on Capitol Hill about Accenture’s inability to meet the terms of the lucrative contract.
“Under the Accenture contract, it will reportedly cost almost $40,000 to hire each new law enforcement officer,” U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, the then-Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, wrote in a letter to CBP’s acting commissioner.
“This is almost equal to the amount made by an entry level Border Patrol Agent, or CBP Officer. Despite the high cost, that amount will still not cover all the expenses of hiring.”
Months later, when Florida awarded Accenture a $180 million contract to implement the PALM program, the state’s newly created accounting and cash management system, critics bristled.
The state concurrently hired another multi-national consulting firm, Oracle, to implement the software on the PALM project.
Oracle today is the subject of a U.S. Department of Labor lawsuit for allegedly withholding $400 million in wages from black, Asian, and female employees, as well as international workers with visas.
In the months and years after Bedell, now 97, uncovered the Pentagon’s $435 hammer, he waged an indefatigable crusade against the Pentagon’s military procurement process.
His tenacity ultimately paid off: Members of Congress overwhelmingly approved his amendment requiring Pentagon officials to purchase supplies for the same price consumers pay.
“I think the American public is terribly disturbed over the waste that takes place in government,” Bedell said shortly after his reforms were enacted into law. “And this is something they can understand. They’re used to buying hammers for $7.”
With a new administration in Tallahassee, there will undoubtedly be several contracts handed out for various state projects. Hopefully those charged with reviewing bids will opt for the $7 hammer rather than the $435 one.