'Streamlined' tender for army tents embroiled in lawsuit and trade complaint
Controversy shines a light on the cutthroat competition in defence procurement, analyst says
Two of the four bidders on a project to supply the Canadian military with mobile headquarters tents have filed complaints over how the $200-million procurement has been handled by the government.
HDT Expeditionary Systems, based in Fairfield, Va., and CAMEC Joint Venture of Ottawa submitted formal objections with the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body that deals with procurement disputes involving federal government contracts.
One complaint was filed last winter and the other was submitted in June, according to tribunal records.
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The contract has yet to be awarded by the Liberal government, but both firms are upset with a myriad of issues ranging from the hundreds of technical requirements to concerns that their competitors may have had a slight political or information edge.
The trade tribunal recently rejected HDT's case but decided to conduct an inquiry into the allegations levelled by CAMEC, which claims Public Services and Procurement Canada used "undisclosed criteria when evaluating its bid."
HDT responded by launching a challenge in the Federal Court of Appeal last month.
The statement of claim, obtained by CBC News, says public works "unfairly imposed different evaluation criteria" on the company than what was set out in the request for proposals.
The companies have also complained that the 839 contract requirements are excessive, that mandated cold-weather testing by the National Research Council was unsuitable and that at least one of the bidders had a lot more information about the status of the procurement than they had.
Liberals lauded bid system
The controversy comes just months after Judy Foote, the minister of public services and procurement, lauded the relatively straightforward two-step tent procurement — among others — as a new, "win-win" model for how to do business with defence contractors.
The process, which allows bidders to tweak their proposals after they've been submitted to avoid disqualification on minor technical shortcomings, was meant to "streamline and simplify" defence procurement — something that was a constant political headache for the former Conservative government.
There are signs, however, the Liberals have come to realize there is nothing simple about competitive bidding in the world of military equipment. Last month, a special cabinet committee was created to oversee defence procurement, a troubled system beset by the politically charged debate over the failed Conservative bid to buy the F-35 fighter jet.
The tent contract proved divisive from its early days.
Questions were raised publicly over the hiring of the army's former director of land requirements by one of the bidders on the contract, DEW Engineering.
Retired lieutenant-colonel Greg Burton told The Canadian Press in January that his employment was cleared of any potential conflict of interest before he joined the firm and that throughout his time at National Defence headquarters, he did not have a hand in the development of specifications for the tent contract.
The fourth contract bidder is Weatherhaven, of Coquitlam, B.C.
Even the easy stuff is hard
Buying military tents — even a huge order — should be relatively easy, said defence analyst Dave Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The controversy, he said, shines a light on an under-appreciated aspect of the dysfunctional defence procurement system: the cutthroat nature of corporate competition.
"Companies are well within their rights to complain," said Perry, and trade and court challenges are the "nature of business." But the effect on the system — especially when you're dealing with something as simple as tents — can be "crippling."
Already understaffed planners with Defence and Public Services spend an enormous amount of time making sure requirements and procedures are "bulletproof," he said.
"It makes governments more reluctant to move ahead."
Public Services and Procurement Canada responded Friday, saying the department is committed to fair, transparent and open competitions.
Pierre-Alain Bujold would not comment on the allegations, but indicated the tent contract is now on hold until the trade tribunal rules on the CAMEC complaint.