Despite COVID-19 article overload—and understandable fatigue—there is no doubt that there will be substantial audit activity related to COVID-19 contracts and receipt of relief funding. All of the ingredients for a Perfect Storm are present: unprecedented federal and state spending causing significant government budget deficits, coupled with hyper-partisan politics, and the creation of multiple government audit functions. Add in revenue-stressed government contractors perhaps focusing less on compliance, with a workforce working remotely, and you have everything necessary for a Perfect Storm. Let’s face it, the press and politicians are—or will be—on the lookout for relief funds and sweetheart contracts awarded to companies with cozy relationships with the executive branch, contracts that didn’t provide the intended benefit, and contracts and relief funds that have otherwise already received media attention.
There is nothing you can do to prevent an audit, but you can be prepared. Below are some very general guidelines you can follow now to make your life easier in the future if you do become the target of an audit or potential audit.
- Memorialize Everything. Too many things are happening too fast. Information that you think you will remember (so you don’t bother to write down or don’t write down with sufficient detail) will be forgotten. Audits can occur two, three, or even five years after the fact. Memories fade. Employees retire or move on.
- Ensure You Have Contracting Officer Approvals. Only contracting officers have warrants and only they can authorize changes to contracts that affect dollars, schedule changes, deliverables, and requirements. If you didn’t get contracting officer approval at the time, go back and request approval (in writing) now.
- Establish Commonsensical and Clear Labeling. At some point in time, you have moved to a new home and someone has told you to take an extra 30 seconds to add more detailed descriptions on your boxes. For example, while the label “closet” seemed adequate when packing-up, it is not useful when you are looking for bed sheets to sleep on at midnight for the first night in your new home. The same is true with government contracts. Simply labeling a folder or e-mail “HHS contract” is better than nothing, but it is not very helpful when trying to locate a specific conversation or contract modification.
- Centralize Contract Files for a Later, Easy Location. It is of no value to maintain documents and records if you cannot find them. Establish standard operating procedures (“SOPs”) so that someone walking in off the street two years from now can read them and easily understand where files are located.
- Archive E-mails to Avoid Automatic Deletion Programs. Company information technology systems are overwhelmed. As a result, many companies have implemented programs that automatically delete e-mails after a certain period of time. Design an SOP so that relevant government contracting e-mails are archived in a manner to avoid deletion.
- Perform Periodic Internal Spot Reviews. Simply having a compliance policy and procedures are no longer enough. You need to periodically confirm that the policy and procedures are being followed—and are effective. Conduct periodic spot checks and memorialize the results. Remember, the only thing worse than not having a compliance program, is having a program and not following it.
- Conduct Exit Interviews and Laptop Ghosting. Know how to find former employees. Don’t simply accept a former employee’s laptop, clean it, and reissue it to another employee. Take the extra time to ghost the laptop and save the contents in a place that you can locate at a later date (again, think two years from now). In addition, take the time to interview departing employees and, among other information, determine the location (hard and soft copy) of relevant government contracting files.
It makes no sense to work hard to win these contracts, help a state or the federal government respond to the COVID-19 national emergency, and record revenue today to only years later have to give back the money you earned because you don’t have documents in your contract files to substantiate information requested by an auditor. To be clear, auditors may be very nice people, but they don’t care that you did a great job and helped an agency achieve its mission. Auditors have a job to do. They have checklists to follow. If the required documents are not provided or available, they cannot and will not check the box. Rather, they will tell you to provide your explanation to the next level of review. Take the time now and follow the above guidelines to protect yourself. You will hate it now and claim that there just isn’t enough time in the day but, if and when you get that audit request, you will be thankful.