Updated 7:55 p.m. ET Aug. 3
Officials at the U.S. Government Publishing Office botched the awarding of its single largest contract — the 2020 census printing contract — according to a memo from the federal agency's Office of the Inspector General.
"Our investigation revealed GPO did not do an adequate job of protecting the interests of the Government," concluded former Inspector General Michael Raponi, who authored the report obtained by NPR.
Despite irregularities and what the report describes as a "high degree of disregard for GPO practices and procedures," the GPO's contracting officials awarded the $61 million contract to the printing company Cenveo in October 2017.
Less than four months later, Cenveo filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
GPO contracting officials failed to check whether the company had enough financial resources to complete the job.
In a violation of contracting rules and procedure, the inspector general found GPO contracting officials allowed Cenveo to substantially lower its bid after other bids had been unsealed. Moreover, the agency's Contract Review Board approved the contract "without ensuring the contracting officer had reviewed Cenveo's financial status."
"GPO management has taken steps to improve the procurement process," the agency's spokesperson Gary Somerset said in a written statement.
Somerset did not provide any details to NPR about the changes GPO management has made in response to Raponi's report.
Cenveo has not responded to NPR's multiple requests for comment.
The March 28 report was prepared for the Government Publishing Office's acting general counsel by Raponi, who has since left the agency.
Melinda Miguel, the GPO's current inspector general who stepped into the position earlier this month, confirmed the copy of Raponi's report that NPR obtained was the memo's final version.
In February, the GPO's Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into the selection process for a 2020 census printer "due to the significance of the U.S. Census and multiple news reports questioning the award of the contract to Cenveo," Raponi wrote in his report.
The paper questionnaires, letters and other printed materials are critical components for the government's upcoming headcount of every person living in the U.S., as required by the Constitution every 10 years. For decades, the Census Bureau has relied on households to return these paper mailings to help produce population counts used to redistribute congressional seats and Electoral College votes among states.
In a bankruptcy settlement agreement approved by a federal judge in New York last week, the Census Bureau has agreed to pay $5.5 million to Cenveo "to resolve all disputes" related to the contract's end. But according to Raponi's memo, the government may owe additional money to the bankrupt printing company. "As of the date of this report, Cenveo has submitted 13 invoices to GPO for payment, none of which has been paid," Raponi wrote in his report, which is dated March 28.
Somerset, GPO's spokesperson, said in a written statement that Cenveo "has been paid or will be paid for the work they have successfully completed." A Census Bureau spokesperson says the unpaid work includes printing and mailing services for this year's test run of the 2020 census in Rhode Island's Providence County.
Raponi requested a written response from the GPO's general counsel "no later than 60 days" after receiving his March memo. It is unclear if the GPO's management has submitted one.
Cenveo's printing contract for the 2020 census was terminated by Justice Department attorneys last week. The move leaves the Census Bureau without a printer less than two years before the national head count begins.
At an Aug. 3 public meeting at the Census Bureau, Albert Fontenot, the head of the 2020 census, confirmed the bureau is working with the GPO to start searching for a new printer. Fontenot said they plan to award a new printing contract in November with "no negative impact" on preparations for the head count.
But William Turri, who previously headed what was once known as the Government Printing Office before the 2010 census printing contract was awarded, is not so optimistic.
"That's cutting it very close," Turri said. "They would, obviously, normally have somebody lined up to do this kind of work long before now. So they're going to be under a lot of pressure."
In the audio, we describe the 2020 census as the first online U.S. census. It would have been more accurate to say it will be the first census in which all households will have the opportunity to reply online. In 2000, there was an online option, but it was only for the short form and only in English. The Census Bureau says 63,053 households were counted using only the online option.