This past Monday, April 28, U.S. federal trial court judge George B. Daniels sentenced three persons at the center of a corrupt scheme that cost New York City some $600 million to 20 years each in prison. Despite the massive loss and the large number of firms and individuals that participated, the scheme was quite simple. Its simplicity, and the vulnerability of a government as large and sophisticated as that of New York City to it, is a stark reminder of how critical contract administration — one of the more prosaic-sounding responsibilities of government — is to controlling corruption.
The New York scam arose from a $63 million contract to modernize its payroll system. Software contracts, like construction contracts, can take months if not years to perform and may need to be modified as the contractor runs into issues not anticipated when the contract was drafted. More computer code than initially foreseen may be required to capture the way employees in some departments record their hours; a road may have to be re-routed because the ground along the original route turns out to be unstable. But it may also be that more code isn’t needed or that the original routing of the road is fine. Instead, it may simply be that the contractor is looking for a way to squeeze more money out of government.
To deal with this concern, governments typically rely on expert professionals to evaluate a contractor’s requests for change orders. Often these professionals also decide whether the completed project meets contract specifications. They thus serve as guardians of project quality and integrity. What happened in New York was simple: the guards deserted their post, conspiring with the contractor to bilk the city of out hundreds of millions of dollars. Where the city erred was its failure to heed the famous question attributed to the Roman satirist Juvenal: Who guards the guardians?
Heeding that question and coming up with a satisfactory answer are, of course, two different things. What can a government do to avoid the sort of collusion that cost New York City so much money? Continue reading