National Security

Second contractor protests FBI’s no-bid, $500 million deal with Motorola

Some of the different radio systems available to public safety agencies on November 30, 2013. (Nader Khouri/MCT)
Some of the different radio systems available to public safety agencies on November 30, 2013. (Nader Khouri/MCT) MCT

The Harris Corp. has become the second contractor to formally protest the FBI’s plans to award a no-bid contract worth up to $500 million to Motorola Solutions Inc., calling the bureau’s proposal to forgo competitive bidding “factually unsound, legally unwarranted and wholly unnecessary.”

The FBI gave other vendors only a couple of weeks’ notice late last month that it planned to hand the contract to Illinois-based Motorola Solutions, the company that dominates the nation’s emergency communications market, mainly to upgrade the 30-year-old two-way radio network used by thousands of bureau agents.

Many FBI agents still use radios that operate in conventional analog mode, requiring twice as much bandwidth than is permitted under a 2008 mandate from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which regulates federal emergency communications.

But in a filing with the Government Accountability Office, lawyers for Florida-based Harris took strong issue with the FBI’s assertion that proprietary features in the existing Motorola system would preclude interaction with products of other manufacturers.

“Harris’ infrastructure and portable radio equipment can work with legacy Motorola equipment until such legacy equipment is replaced,” they wrote. Indeed, the FBI already owns two Harris “cores,” or controllers, that have connected with Motorola equipment for years, they said.

It was Harris, Motorola’s biggest rival in the domestic market, that installed infrastructure under a contract to upgrade two-way radios for multiple departments in the nation’s capital in 2007. Hence, Harris lawyers wrote, if the FBI seeks to justify a “follow-on” contract, it selected the wrong company.

On its face, Harris said, the FBI proposal also must be scrapped because it seeks to allow 11 other agencies within the Justice and Homeland Security departments to buy up to about $170 million in Motorola equipment off of the contract over the next five years. Harris said that proposal “renders improper any sole-source award to Motorola,” because those agencies are already using Harris equipment.

The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Motorola spokesman Tom McMahon said it’s company policy not to comment on pending procurements.

Harris’ protest also took issue with the FBI’s assertions that two of its procurement officials spoke with other vendors at a trade show and concluded that none could overcome the proprietary barriers of Motorola’s legacy equipment, noting there was no visit to Harris’ booth. The FBI’s procurement office also said its plan could save $300 million in legacy equipment and avoid a $1.2 billion expenditure if it switched to another vendor, but Harris contended that the bureau was seeking to preserve “obsolete” equipment that must be replaced.

The GAO has authority under the Competition in Contracting Act to halt sole-source contracts if an agency fails to properly justify them. In late July, a small radio manufacturer, RELM Wireless, said it would protest the contract, which it said would “severely impact” its business.

The FBI proposal marks at least the third time that Motorola has sought to sell two-way radio equipment to Justice Department agencies on a sole-source basis, and each of the others drew criticism, Harris’ lawyers wrote.

In 2012, auditors for the Justice Department Inspector General’s Office especially questioned a similar no-bid contract worth up to $500 million that the Drug Enforcement Administration handed Motorola in 2009 to upgrade and maintain its legacy equipment. The auditors expressed concern that the contract “may be violating procurement regulations by not using fair and open competition” in the purchase of radios.

Motorola, which for years has controlled an estimated 80 percent share of the domestic two-way radio market, was already drawing scrutiny before challenges to the FBI contract.

On July 15, three senior House Democrats sent a letter asking John Roth, inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, to investigate allegations in a McClatchy series published in March that detailed how Motorola has maneuvered to hang onto its market share with state and local contracts across the country, while charging taxpayers as much as $7,500 apiece for its radios.

Roth has yet to say whether he will order an audit or an investigation.