- The Washington Times
Monday, December 15, 2014

The Treasury Department’s new senior procurement executive steered millions of dollars worth of work to friends when she was a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and then obstructed investigators looking into the matter, the inspector general said in a report made public Monday.

The inspector general found that Iris Cooper, who ran the VA’s office of acquisition operations, “preselected” Ohio-based Tridec Technologies LLC for a contract, then helped break the work into smaller no-bid contracts to ensure the company got the work.

While the inspector general was investigating Ms. Cooper, she left the VA. She is now the senior procurement official at the Treasury, which handles more than $5 billion in contracts.

The inspector general said that because Ms. Cooper had left the VA by the time investigators finished their report, they didn’t recommend any action against her.

In a statement to The Washington Times, spokesman Adam Hodge said the Treasury Department “was not aware of the report when Ms. Cooper was hired and it has no bearing on her standing as an employee of the Department.”

But a senior member of Congress said the department will have to answer why it hired her.

“This report detailing how two senior VA acquisition officials improperly steered contracts to their friends and then lied to IG officials in an attempt to cover it up is deeply troubling,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“We’ve already been in touch with Treasury Department officials, who assured us they would investigate the circumstances surrounding the department’s hiring of Iris Cooper,” the congressman said.

An attorney for Ms. Cooper said in a statement Monday that she “strongly disagreed” with the inspector general’s findings and that Ms. Cooper always followed the law and “worked diligently to serve the best interests of our veterans.”

Tridec did not respond to inquiries by deadline Monday.

The contract in question was for the VA’s “virtual office acquisition,” an online portal for proposals and other acquisition records. VA auditors previously questioned whether the project was needed at all, saying it duplicated an existing system.

The new inspector general’s report raised sharp questions about the integrity of VA’s market research surrounding the hiring of Tridec. Contract papers in July 2009 stated that Tridec had “recently completed a very similar effort for the Department of Transportation.”

But the inspector general’s office found no contracts awarded to the company by the Transportation Department or any other federal agency prior to the July 23, 2009, contract memo. Ohio public records show that the company was incorporated a few months earlier.

The inspector general’s office also concluded that the VA awarded no improper no-bid contracts to Tridec at the direction of Ms. Cooper and Wendy McCutcheon, former associate director in the VA’s office of acquisition operations. Ms. McCutcheon could not be reached for comment Monday.

The report said documents “clearly reflected” that Ms. Cooper and two other officials at VA “preselected Tridec” long before the July 2009 market research memo.

“We found this occurred because of Ms. Cooper’s personal relationship” with two Tridec officials: David London, a part owner, and Robert Fritschie, the son of the owner, the inspector general concluded.

The inspector general’s report also concluded that Ms. Cooper, as the VA’s competition advocate, allowed the virtual acquisition office project to be broken into smaller parts to ensure no-bid contracts for Tridec.

Overall, Tridec received three no-bid contracts worth more than $15 million combined, but the inspector general’s office found that the awards were split into a smaller contracts of about $5 million each to ensure the work went to Tridec, according to the report.

In addition to steering business to Tridec, the inspector general’s report said, Ms. Cooper tried to mislead investigators.

Asked by agents how or when Tridec knew that the VA was looking to create a virtual acquisition office, Ms. Cooper said she didn’t recall. The inspector general’s office called that explanation “difficult to comprehend.”

The inspector general’s report said Ms. Cooper contacted another federal agency in May 2009 to get screen shots of their “VOA like” program, then sent the information to Tridec, which used that information in its contract submission to the VA.

“The emails clearly showed Ms. Cooper’s discussions with Triidec related to VOA and that she promoted Tridec for the VOA project prior to any market research,” the inspector general’s office concluded.

But in an email, David Schertler, Ms. Cooper’s attorney, said she “strongly disagrees” with the inspector general’s findings.

“The report is biased, misleading and completely disregards a number of critical facts, including that Ms. Cooper recused herself from the VOA contracting process after Mr. London joined Tridec Technologies,” the lawyer said.

Ms. Cooper’s move to the Treasury Department was reported by the Federal Times in February.

Officials at the inspector general’s office posted the report Monday after an open records request by The Times last week sought a copy of the document.

Mr. Miller said the findings should have been released immediately without the need for a public records request.

“What’s also disturbing is that it looks as if the OIG tried to keep this report from the public using selective and seemingly arbitrary enforcement of privacy laws, which did not prevent the release of similar reports in recent months,” he said.

“The VA inspector general owes the public an explanation as to why it sought to hide this report from the public as well as the steps it took to notify the Treasury Department of Cooper’s despicable behavior,” the congressman said.

The inspector general’s office denied any effort to keep the findings under wraps, saying officials posted the title of the report a week ago, which made it subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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