GAO Confirms Enforceability of 44 U.S.C. 501
Requiring Agency Print Purchases to go Through GPO
by Frederic G. Antoun, Jr.

On December 16, 2002, the U. S. General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a decision in Bureau of Land Management:  Payment of Pocatello Field Office Photocopying Cost (B-290901). 

The decision was a result of a request by a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) certifying officer for a decision as to whether or not BLM appropriated funds could be used to pay for photocopying services bought directly from a commercial vendor, without going through the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO). 

GAO found that since the BLM employees purchased the printing directly, in violation of the requirement of 44 U.S.C. 501 that agencies to go through the GPO for print purchases, without a prior waiver from the Public Printer, BLM was not authorized to spend appropriated funds to pay the printing contractor.  The determination was based on the conclusion that since there was no authority to contract with the private sector printing provider, and since there was a contradictory statute (44 U.S.C. 501), any contract with a private sector printing contact imposed no legal obligation on the government to pay. 

The bottom line is that GAO confirmed its prior decisions that agencies are still required to go through the GPO for print purchases pursuant to 44 U.S.C. 501, and that failing to do so can have some serious consequences:

1)    The printer may not be paid;

2)    The agency may seek recovery of amounts inappropriately charged on a credit card from the employee who made the purchase.  (See footnote 1 to the attached GAO Decision). 

This GAO opinion continues the GAO’s strong stance in support of enforcement of existing laws, including 44 U.S.C. 501, unless such laws have been declared unconstitutional by the appropriate federal court. 

 There are two other interesting sidelights in this decision. 

  1. GAO clearly described the work done as photocopying, yet noted in the first sentence of its discussion that the type of printing work involved is not excluded from the requirements of Title 44. 
  1. GAO found that a mandatory GPO term contract was in place for BLM, under which the GPO contractor could have performed the work “in a timely manner at considerably lower cost.”  The cost factor did not play into the GAO’s legal decision – it would have made no difference whether or not the work would have been cheaper or more expensive had it been processed as required through GPO.  But it is interesting to note that this is another instance where an agency has gone outside the GPO, and later investigation showed that they paid significantly more than they would have if the job been processed through GPO.  I suspect that this price differential is due directly to the fact that agencies do not seek open competition when they contract out their printing directly.

Perhaps agencies that want to go directly to the contractor should take advantage of GPO's Simplified Purchase Agreements (SPA), which allow the agency buyer to place orders under $2,500 on the SPA directly with one of the printers on the SPA, on a "best value" basis.  Since SPAs are issued by GPO, there are no legal issues or potential violations to worry about.

 Click here to read the GAO decision. 

© Copyright 2002  Frederic G. Antoun Jr.