The procurement mess

THE door that opened in June when the Pentagon procurement scandal hit front pages remains ajar, and disturbing pieces of information regularly pop out. The latest insights into the way defense funds are spent comes from a four-year investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general. It finds - in line with earlier news stories and widespread public suspicions - that many defense contractors have consistently overcharged the government.

The amount of overcharge on any given item may not be much, but the total is hundreds of millions of dollars.

The overcharges, which often spring from a contractor's failure to include accurate labor costs in a bid, don't constitute criminal fraud, but they do violate the federal Truth in Negotiations Act. Under that law, the Defense Department can reclaim the money with interest penalties.

Another internal Pentagon report, completed in April but only recently made public, documents the Navy's overuse of consultants in making purchasing decisions. These consultants, working under contract, were often privy to top-secret information usually reserved for government officials only. That, in context of the procurement scandal revelations about information peddling, can't fail to raise eyebrows.

It's reassuring that so much of what we know about these problems comes from the Pentagon's own self-policing efforts. Indications are that under Secretary Frank Carlucci III, the system is beginning to get a housecleaning.

But dealing with this mess will be a long-term job. The bulk of it will fall into the hands of the next administration, and voters should be given some concrete ideas in the months ahead of where candidates Dukakis and Bush stand on cleaning up the procurement system. That system, after all, processes a huge share of their tax dollars.

It's not clear, at this point, just what kind of systemic change is needed. But it is clear that a thorough straightening out is in order after a period in which more money was plunged through the system than the system could manage.

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