Illinois-Based Charter School Management Company To Pay $4.5 Million To Settle Claims Relating To E-Rate Contracts

Concept Schools, NFP, has agreed to pay $4.5 million as part of a civil settlement to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by engaging in non-competitive bidding practices in connection with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate Program, the Department of Justice announced today. 

The E-Rate Program, created by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, subsidizes eligible equipment and services to make internet access and internal networking more affordable for needy public schools and libraries. 

“Today’s settlement demonstrates our continuing vigilance to ensure that those doing business with the government do not engage in anticompetitive conduct,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.  “Government contractors and schools that seek to profit at the expense of taxpayers will face serious consequences.”

The United States alleged that Concept Schools, a charter school management company located in Des Plaines, Illinois, rigged the bidding for E-Rate contracts between 2009 and 2012 in favor of chosen technology vendors so that its network of charter schools located in several states, including Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana, selected the chosen vendors without a meaningful, fair and open bidding process.  Additionally, the government alleged that Concept Schools’ chosen vendors provided equipment at higher prices than those approved by the FCC for equipment with the same functionality.  The government also contended that Concept Schools failed to maintain sufficient control over equipment reimbursed by the FCC, some of which was discovered missing.

Contemporaneous with the civil settlement, Concept Schools has agreed to enter into a corporate compliance plan with the FCC.

“E-Rate contractors and schools receiving E-Rate funds must understand and know that actions that undermine the contracting process, such as conspiring to rig competitive bidding, will not be tolerated and will be investigated aggressively,” said David L. Hunt, Inspector General of the FCC.

The settlement was the result of a coordinated effort by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the FCC Office of Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General.     

The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability. 

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    Since April 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has submitted 33 requests for assistance (RFA) to the Department of Defense (DOD) for support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) mission at the southwest border. DOD established six criteria for evaluating RFAs, which it documents in decision packages. When reviewing four selected decision packages, GAO found that DOD fully evaluated four of these six criteria. GAO found that DOD developed rough cost estimates that were not reliable. In addition, DOD did not fully evaluate the effect on military readiness of providing support at the time the Secretary of Defense considered DHS's requests. Without reliable cost estimates and a timely readiness analysis, DOD is limited in its ability to evaluate the effect of supporting DHS on its budget and readiness rebuilding efforts. DOD's Detection and Monitoring Support Mission DOD has not provided Congress with timely information on the full costs it has incurred since 2018 in supporting DHS. Specifically, during this review, DOD did not submit its statutory report to Congress for fiscal year 2019, which was due March 31, 2020. Additionally, GAO found that DOD's internal tracking of obligations excludes potentially significant costs of border support activities, such as installation support costs and the cost of benefits retroactively provided to members of the National Guard. By providing more timely and complete information to Congress, DOD would enhance Congress's ability to conduct oversight and make funding decisions for DOD and DHS. DOD and DHS employed several key interagency collaboration practices for DOD's support on the southwest border, but they have not agreed on a common outcome for DOD's support in fiscal year 2021 and beyond. DHS anticipates needing at least the current amount of DOD support for the next 3 to 5 years, possibly more, and officials stated that the desired outcome is for DOD to provide the capabilities requested in the RFAs. This differs from DOD's desired outcome, which is to provide temporary assistance until DHS can independently execute its border security mission. Defining and articulating a common outcome for DOD's support could enable DOD to more effectively plan for the resources it will need to support DHS and enable DHS to plan to manage its border security mission more effectively with its own assets. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in February 2021. Information on force protection that DOD deemed sensitive has been omitted. For decades, the U.S. southwest border has been vulnerable to cross-border illegal activity such as illegal entries, smuggling of drugs and contraband, and terrorist activities. Since 2002, DOD has supported DHS's mission to secure the nation's borders and episodically supported its efforts to manage surges in foreign nationals without valid travel documents who are seeking entry—most recently since April 2018, when the President directed the Secretary of Defense to support DHS in securing the southwest border. GAO was asked to examine this support. This report assesses the extent to which (1) DOD has evaluated DHS's RFAs, (2) DOD has reported to Congress the full costs of its support, and (3) DOD and DHS have collaborated on border security operations. GAO reviewed RFAs that DHS submitted to DOD between April 2018 and March 2020 and a non-generalizable sample of decision packages that DOD prepared in response, and conducted four site visits to border locations where military personnel were stationed. GAO makes seven recommendations, five to DOD to improve its analysis and reporting of cost and unit-level readiness impacts of supporting southwest border operations and one each to DOD and DHS to define a common outcome for DOD's future support. DOD agreed with one recommendation and disagreed with five. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are warranted as discussed in the report. DHS agreed with the recommendation to it. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Medicaid Information Technology: Effective CMS Oversight and States’ Sharing of Claims Processing and Information Retrieval Systems Can Reduce Costs
    In U.S GAO News
    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has reimbursed billions of dollars to states for the development, operation, and maintenance of claims processing and information retrieval systems—the Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) systems. Specifically, from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2018, states spent a total of $44.1 billion on their MMIS and E&E systems. CMS reimbursed the states $34.3 billion of that total amount (see figure). Money Spent by States and Reimbursed by CMS from 2008–2018 for Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) Systems For fiscal years 2016 through 2018, CMS approved 93 percent and disapproved 0.4 percent of MMIS funding requests, while for E&E it approved 81 percent and disapproved 1 percent of the requests. The remaining 6.6 percent of MMIS requests and 18 percent of E&E requests were either withdrawn by states or were pending. GAO estimates that CMS had some level of supporting evidence of its review for about 74 percent of MMIS requests and about 99 percent of E&E requests. However, GAO estimates that about 100 percent of E&E requests and 68 percent of MMIS requests lacked pertinent information that would be essential for indicating that a complete review had been performed. Among CMS requirements for system implementation funding is that states submit an alternatives analysis, feasibility study, and cost benefit analysis. However, GAO found that about 45 percent of such requests it sampled for fiscal years 2016 through 2018 did not include these required documents. The above weaknesses were due, in part, to a lack of formal, documented procedures for reviewing state funding requests. CMS also lacked a risk-based process for overseeing systems after federal funds were provided. CMS provided helpful comments and recommendations to states in selected cases, but in other instances it did not. In two states that had contractors struggling to deliver successful projects, state officials said they had not received recommendations or technical assistance from CMS. The states eventually terminated the projects after spending a combined $38.5 million in federal funds. According to CMS officials, they rely largely on states to oversee systems projects. This perspective is consistent with a 2018 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decision that federal information technology (IT) grants totaling about $9 billion annually would no longer be tracked on OMB's public web site on IT investment performance. Accordingly, the CMS and Health and Human Services chief information officers (CIO) are not involved in overseeing MMIS or E&E projects. Similarly, 21 of 47 states responding to GAO's survey reported that their state CIO had little or no involvement in overseeing their MMISs. Such non-involvement of officials with duties that should be heavily focused on successful acquisition and operation of IT projects could be hindering states' ability to effectively implement systems. To improve oversight, CMS has begun a new outcome-based initiative that focuses the agency's review of state funding requests on the successful achievement of business outcomes. However, as of February 2020, CMS had not yet established a timeline for including MMIS and E&E systems in the new outcome-based process. CMS had various initiatives aimed at reducing duplication of Medicaid systems (see table). Description and Status of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Initiatives Aimed at Reducing Duplication by Sharing, Leveraging, and Reusing Medicaid Information Technology Initiative Description Implementation status Number of surveyed states reporting use of the initiative Reuse Repository Used by states to collect and share reusable artifacts. Made available in August 2017. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. 25 of the 50 reporting states Poplin Project Was to provide free, open-source application program interfaces for states to use in developing their modular Medicaid systems. Initiative never fully implemented. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. Three of the 50 reporting states Open Source Provider Screening Module Open-source module for states to use at no charge. Made available in August 2018. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. One of the 50 states reported attempting to use the module. Medicaid Enterprise Cohort Meetings A forum where states can discuss sharing, leveraging, and/or reuse of Medicaid technologies. As of January 2020, Cohort meetings were being held on a monthly basis. 47 of the 50 states reported participating in the meetings. Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-20-179 However, as of January 2020, the agency was no longer supporting most of these initiatives because they failed to produce the desired results. CMS regulations and GAO's prior work have highlighted the importance of reducing duplication by sharing and reusing Medicaid IT. To illustrate the potential for reducing duplication, 53 percent of state Medicaid officials responding to our survey reported using the same contractor to develop their MMIS. Nevertheless, selected states are taking the initiative to share systems or modules. Further support by CMS could result in additional sharing initiatives and potential cost savings. The Medicaid program is the largest source of health care funding for America's most at-risk populations and is funded jointly by states and the federal government. GAO was asked to assess CMS's oversight of federal expenditures for MMIS and E&E systems used for Medicaid. This report examines (1) the amount of federal funds that CMS has provided to state Medicaid programs to support MMIS and E&E systems, (2) the extent to which CMS reviews and approves states' funding requests for the systems and oversees the use of these funds, and (3) CMS's and states' efforts to reduce potential duplication of Medicaid IT systems. GAO assessed information related to MMIS and E&E systems, such as state expenditure data, federal regulations, and CMS guidance to the states for submitting funding requests, states' system funding requests, and IT project management documents. GAO also evaluated a generalizable sample of approved state funding requests from fiscal years 2016 through 2018 to analyze, among other things, CMS's review and approval process and conducted interviews with agency and state Medicaid officials. GAO also reviewed relevant regulations and guidance on promoting, sharing, and reusing MMIS and E&E technologies; and surveyed 50 states and six territories (hereafter referred to as states) regarding the MMIS and E&E systems, and assessed the complete or partial responses received from 50 states. GAO is making nine recommendations to improve CMS's processes for approving and overseeing the federal funds for MMIS and E&E systems and for bolstering efforts to reduce potential duplication. Among these recommendations are that CMS should develop formal, documented procedures that include specific steps to be taken in the advanced planning document review process and instructions on how CMS will document the reviews; develop, in consultation with the HHS and CMS CIOs, a documented, comprehensive, and risk-based process for how CMS will select IT projects for technical assistance and provide recommendations to assist states that is aimed at improving the performance of the systems; encourage state Medicaid program officials to consider involving state CIOs in overseeing Medicaid IT projects; establish a timeline for implementing the outcome-based certification process for MMIS and E&E systems; and identify, prior to approving funding for systems, similar projects that other states are pursuing so that opportunities to share, leverage, or reuse systems or system modules are considered. In written comments on a draft of this report, the department concurred with eight of the nine recommendations, and described steps it had taken and/or planned to take to address them. The department did not state whether it concurred with GAO's recommendation to encourage state officials to consider involving state CIOs in Medicaid IT projects. HHS stated that it was unable to discern evidence as to whether a certain structure contributed to a specific outcome. GAO believes, consistent with federal law, that CIOs are critically important to the success of IT projects. For more information, contact Vijay D’Souza at (202) 512-6240 or dsouzav@gao.gov.
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  • Retirement Security: DOL Could Better Inform Divorcing Parties About Dividing Savings
    In U.S GAO News
    Although more than one-third of adults aged 50 or older have experienced divorce, few people seek and obtain a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), according to large plan sponsors GAO surveyed. A QDRO establishes the right of an alternate payee, such as a former spouse, to receive all or a portion of the benefits payable to a participant under a retirement plan upon separation or divorce. There are no nationally representative data on the number of QDROs, but plans and record keepers GAO interviewed and surveyed reported that few seek and obtain QDROs. For example, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation administered retirement benefits to about 1.6 million participants, and approved about 16,000 QDROs in the last 10 years. GAO's analysis of other survey data found about one-third of those who experienced a divorce from 2008 to 2016 and reported their former spouse had a retirement plan also reported losing a claim to that spouse's benefits. Many experts stated that some people—especially those with lower incomes—face challenges to successfully navigating the process for obtaining a QDRO, including complexity and cost. Individuals seeking a QDRO may be charged fees for preparation and review of draft orders before they are qualified as QDROs and, according to experts GAO interviewed, these fees vary widely. These experts cited concerns about QDRO review fees that they said in some cases were more than twice the amount of typical fees, and said they may discourage some from pursuing QDROs. Department of Labor (DOL) officials said the agency generally does not collect information on QDRO fees. Exploring ways to collect and analyze information from plans on fees could help DOL ensure costs are reasonable. Divorcing parties who pursue QDROs often had orders not qualified due to lacking basic information, according to plans and record keepers we surveyed (see figure). Plan Administrators and Record Keepers Reported Reasons for Not Qualifying a Domestic Relations Order (DRO) DOL provides some information to help divorcing parties pursue QDROs. However, many experts cited a lack of awareness about QDROs by the public and said DOL could do more to make resources available to divorcing parties. Without additional outreach by DOL, divorcing parties may spend unnecessary time and resources drafting orders that are not likely to be qualified, resulting in unnecessary expenditures of time and money. A domestic relations order (DRO) is a court-issued judgment, decree, or order that, when qualified by a retirement plan administrator, can divide certain retirement benefits in connection with separation or divorce and as such provide crucial financial security to a former spouse. DOL has authority to interpret QDRO requirements. GAO was asked to review the process for obtaining QDROs. This report examines what is known about (1) the number of QDRO recipients, (2) the fees and other expenses for processing QDROs, and (3) the reasons plans do not initially qualify DROs and the challenges experts identify regarding the QDRO process. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed available data, and a total of 14 responses from two surveys of large private sector plans and account record keepers, and interviewed 18 experts including practitioners who provide services to divorcing couples. GAO is recommending that DOL (1) explore ways to collect information on QDRO-related fees charged to participants or alternate payees, and (2) take steps to ensure information about the process for obtaining a QDRO is accessible. DOL generally agreed with our recommendations. For more information, contact Kris Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or NguyenTT@gao.gov.
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  • Federal Budget: A Few Agencies and Program-Specific Factors Explain Most Unused Funds
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found About 1.6 percent of the total available budget authority government-wide was cancelled from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2019, averaging $23.9 billion per year. The variations in cancelled appropriations from year to year can be explained largely by trends in four departments. Together they represent 86 percent of the total government-wide cancelled appropriations, but their rate of cancellations were within a few percentage points of the government-wide rate. Four Agencies Represent the Majority of Total Cancellations from FY2009–FY2019 Cancelled appropriations for the six case study accounts GAO reviewed largely resulted from program-specific factors: Actual program needs were less than estimated. For example, actual versus projected troop levels and warfront movements can contribute to cancelled appropriations at the Department of Defense (DOD). Some program funds are only for specific purposes. For example, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families officials reported that some states declined funding for a teen sex and pregnancy prevention program, and the agency did not have the authority to redirect those funds for other purposes. Some programs' costs are more unpredictable than others. Contract and acquisition costs can be unpredictable . When final costs are less than originally estimated, agencies may have to cancel the difference. In contrast, agencies with a higher proportion of personnel expenses, which are relatively predictable, can more easily avoid cancelled appropriations. All of GAO's case study agencies have procedures in place to help limit discretionary cancelled appropriations. For example, the Army established a program that helps reduce cancelled appropriations by providing management with metrics and tools to help prevent them. Why GAO Did This Study Laws limit the time that agencies have available to use fixed-term appropriations for obligations and expenditures. However, agencies do not always obligate and outlay these funds in time, which ultimately results in cancelled appropriations. Efforts to limit the amount of cancelled appropriations result in more accurate budget estimation and fiscal projections, a more efficient appropriations process, and better service to the public. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 includes a provision for GAO to review the status of cancelled appropriations. This report addresses (1) the extent of appropriations that were cancelled in fiscal years 2009 through 2019 and how the rate of cancelled appropriations and other characteristics differ across agencies, (2) factors that contribute to the level of cancelled appropriations in selected accounts at agencies, and (3) efforts selected agencies make to prevent the cancellation of funds. To provide government-wide trends, GAO analyzed Department of the Treasury and Office of Management and Budget data. GAO also analyzed related documents from six case study accounts at DOD, HHS, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and interviewed officials at these agencies. The selected accounts included the three with the most cancelled appropriations government-wide and three additional accounts to represent the major categories of federal spending: personnel, acquisitions, grants, and contracts. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@gao.gov.
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  • Federal Lands and Waters: Information on Agency Spending for Outdoor Recreation Is Limited
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The information that the seven federal agencies GAO reviewed have about their spending that supports outdoor recreation varies and is not intended to fully or precisely reflect all agency spending on recreation. The Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service identified budget lines related to outdoor recreation, although officials said this information may not accurately reflect the agencies' overall recreation spending. This is because some programs can support multiple purposes, so it can be difficult to determine how to divide a program's costs among its different purposes. For example, through its navigation program, the Army Corps of Engineers manages navigation locks, which benefit both commercial and recreational travel. The Bureau of Reclamation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) did not identify budget lines related to outdoor recreation. Examples of Outdoor Recreation Activities on Federal Lands and Waters Some agencies in our review provided spending information, while others provided funding information. The Army Corps of Engineers and Forest Service provided spending (expenditure) information, and BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service provided funding (allotment) information. Funding represents amounts available to the agencies at a particular time but not necessarily actual spending. The Army Corps of Engineers' annual spending for its recreation program budget line averaged about $292 million for fiscal years 2010 through 2019. The Forest Service's annual spending for its budget lines that it identified as supporting outdoor recreation averaged about $225 million for fiscal years 2014 through 2019. BLM's annual funding for its budget lines that it identified as primarily supporting outdoor recreation averaged about $77 million for fiscal years 2010 through 2019. The Fish and Wildlife Service's annual funding for its budget lines that it identified as primarily supporting outdoor recreation averaged about $1.3 billion for fiscal years 2010 through 2019. The National Park Service's annual funding for its budget lines that it identified as primarily supporting outdoor recreation averaged about $1.5 billion for fiscal years 2010 through 2019. Why GAO Did This Study Federal agencies provide outdoor recreation opportunities and facilities on the hundreds of millions acres of lands and waters they manage, attracting hundreds of millions of visitors annually. These agencies include the seven that comprised the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation: the Army Corps of Engineers, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, National Park Service, and NOAA. However, federal agencies are not required to track spending for outdoor recreation, and it is unclear how much federal funding is spent, through various programs, on recreation. The joint explanatory statement accompanying the Department of the Interior's fiscal year 2020 appropriation included a provision for GAO to conduct a study that identifies programs carried out by federal agencies that directly impact the outdoor recreation sector and that presents federal spending information for these programs. This report provides available information on what selected federal agencies know about their outdoor recreation spending. GAO focused on the seven council member agencies; reviewed available data and documents on agency spending or funding that supports outdoor recreation; and interviewed agency officials to understand how, if at all, each agency identified its spending that supports outdoor recreation. For more information, contact at (202) 512-3841 or andersonn@gao.gov.
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