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Allocability of Legal Expenses

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In a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims decided that Tolliver Group was entitled to increased costs on its firm, fixed-price contract with the U.S. Army. We discussed that decision here. What made the decision so interesting (to us, at least) was that the additional costs in question were legal expenses incurred by Tolliver in successfully defending against a relator’s qui tam suit under The False Claims Act.

In rejecting Tolliver’s initial claim for the legal expenses, the contracting officer asserted (among other things) that the expenses were not allocable to the contract. They were found to be not allocable because “they were not incurred specifically for the contract and did not provide the government with a benefit.” That got us thinking about the allocability of legal expenses.

Generally, legal expenses are treated as being indirect costs. Whether incurred by in-house counsel or external counsel, such costs are typically treated as General and Administrative (G&A) expenses. The question is: Under what circumstances may legal costs be direct costs of a contract? Neither CAS nor FAR provide any kind of guidance regarding the allocation of legal expenses. Let’s say that Tolliver consistently treated its legal expenses as being part of its G&A expense pool. How could it then request reimbursement for its costs as if they were direct costs of the Army contract without violating CAS 402? (Remember, CAS 402 requires that the same costs be treated the same way—as being either direct or indirect costs—when incurred for the same purpose in like circumstances.) Thus, to show that these particular legal expenses were direct in nature, Tolliver would have to show that the purpose and/or circumstances differed.

The Court did not address this point in its decision. So we don’t really know how Toliver would have handled the situation. Perhaps Toliver was not subject to CAS? Or perhaps it could show that all False Claim Act defense costs consistently were allocated to the contract(s) that gave rise to the litigation. Again, we do not know.

Here’s what we do know: There are legal precedents for what we imagine Tolliver’s cost accounting treatment of these legal expenses may have been.

In 1988, the ASBCA found that a protester’s legal costs incurred in defending against a protest from the losing offeror were direct costs of the contract, despite the contractor’s consistent practice of including all other legal expenses in its indirect cost pools. What appeared to persuade the Board were the findings that (1) the costs were incurred in connection with a specific contract and did not benefit any other contract, (2) because the costs did not benefit any other contract they could not be treated as indirect costs for allocation to those contracts, (3) the contractor had no choice but to defend against the bid protest, and (4) DCAA audit guidance at the time considered protest-related costs as being direct costs rather than indirect costs. (See Jana, Inc., ASBCA No 32447, Mar 11, 1988, 88–1 BCA ¶ 20,651.)

Also in 1988, the Court of Appeals (Federal Circuit) considered an ASBCA decision regarding a contractor’s inclusion of legal expenses related to litigation between two contractors in its G&A expense pool, despite that litigation relating solely to one particular subcontract. The ASBCA found that, because the legal expenses were incurred specifically for, and could be identified specifically with, the subcontract, the costs were not indirect costs of government contracts. The contractor argued that the decision to litigate was a general business decision and that all its contracts benefited to some extent from the litigation. The contractor also noted that the legal expenses had been incurred after the end of the subcontract’s period of performance. The ASBCA was not persuaded, deciding that the alleged financial benefit to other government contracts was too remote and insubstantial to justify allocation through general and administrative expenses. The Appellate Court upheld the Board’s decision. (See FMC Corp v US, US Ct of App for the Fed Cir, No 87–1423, Decision Aug 5, 1988, affg ASBCA 1987, 87–2 BCA ¶ 19,791.)

Based on those two decisions, you might conclude that the Courts have favored direct allocation of legal expenses—especially litigation expenses. But since those two decisions, the allocability of legal expenses has become somewhat muddied.

The first decision that muddied the field was Caldera v. Northrop Worldwide Aircraft Services, Inc., 192 F.3d 962 (Fed.Cir.1999). In that case, the Appellate Court held that Northrop’s litigation defense costs “were not allocable under FAR § 31.201-4” because the government did not benefit from Northrop’s defense of the [state court] lawsuitThat decision was problematic because it appeared to conflate the concepts of allocability and allowability. Nonetheless, the ASBCA cited to it when it found against a subsequent appeal brought by The Boeing Company.

Thus, the second decision was Boeing North American, Inc. v. Roche, (Fed.Cir. 2002). In that appeal, Boeing argued that that under the FAR no benefit to the government need be shown for a cost to be allocable, even if a nexus to a particular contract is necessary for a cost to be allocable. The Federal Circuit found that “Here the CAS clearly renders Rockwell's legal defense costs allocable as part of G & A expenses.” Further, the Court wrote—

Our earlier decisions [Lockheed and FMC Corp. v. US] relied on by the government as authority for the ‘benefit to the government’ theory, do not supply any support for a rule that would base the allocability of a cost on the cost's ‘benefit to the government’ as opposed to its nexus to government work. … Thus, we agree with Boeing that allocability is an accounting concept and that CAS does not require that a cost directly benefit the government's interests for the cost to be allocable. The word ‘benefit’ is used in the allocability provisions to describe the nexus required for accounting purposes between the cost and the contract to which it is allocated. The requirement of a ‘benefit’ to a government contract is not designed to permit contracting officers, the Board, or this court to embark on an amorphous inquiry into whether a particular cost sufficiently ‘benefits’ the government so that the cost should be recoverable from the government.

Therefore, in Boeing, the Court found that the litigation expenses were allocable to government contacts in general via the G&A expense allocations. That being said, the costs were still disallowed. (Cue sad trombone sound.)

Looking at the totality of the cases, we here at Apogee Consulting, Inc. – WHO ARE NOT ATTORNEYS AND ARE NOT OFFERING LEGAL ADVICE – would say that litigation expenses can be differentiated from other “normal” legal expenses and allocated to the contract or contracts that gave rise to their incurrence. Litigation costs (and other legal expenses) that are not caused by, and which do not benefit a particular contract while benefiting all contracts, may be retained in the G&A expense pool for allocation.

That’s about the best we can figure it out.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 20:02
 

GAO Reports on CAS Board

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It doesn’t say much. Or at least it doesn’t say much to people who are following CAS Board activities by (say) following a blog. Still, if you are out of the loop and want to learn more about what the CAS Board has been up to, then it may prove somewhat interesting.

We’re talking about GAO Report GAO-20-266, published in February. The Report was published because Congress directed GAO to evaluate how well the CAS Board has been doing at the Congressional direction to “conform CAS with GAAP.” It’s a 27 page-long report, but it doesn’t really say much unless you know nothing about CAS or the CAS Board—in which case, it might be helpful.

Examples of sections that likely add little to your knowledge include:

  • The 1968 discussion of the need for uniform cost accounting standards

  • History of the CAS Board’s activities, from August, 1970 through June 2018

  • Chart comparing Standards that apply only to Modified CAS-covered contractors versus Standards that apply to contractors subject to Full CAS coverage. (Spoiler alert: contractor subject to Full CAS coverage must comply with all Standards.)

And even that second bullet is problematic, because GAO saw fit to throw in the Section 809 Panel’s activities. It even saw fit to throw a bit of a dig at the Section 809 Panel, stating that the Panel “largely reiterated the recommendations in the 1999 GAO-led panel report.” Okay.

Finally on page 12 we get to the meat of the matter. GAO reported that “The CAS Board generally has complied or is in the process of complying with the administrative and reporting requirements prescribed by Section 820 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, including initial efforts to assess the extent to which CAS can be conformed with GAAP.”

GAO could have stopped right there, but of course that’s not how government auditors do things. They added this bit: “The Board’s initial efforts focus on the extent to which two of the 19 standards might be modified or eliminated; however, Board members indicated that these efforts may take several more years to complete.”

In other words, don’t hold your breath.

The only other interesting bit was a statement that “OMB recently submitted a legislative proposal to raise the [CAS] threshold from $2 million to $15 million.” We didn’t know that, but now we do!

Otherwise, nothing of substance was communicated from GAO to Congress. GAO fulfilled its role and submitted the required report; nothing in the statute required that report to be meaningful.

 

2020 NDAA-What’s New and What Isn’t New

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When Bob posted his annual summary of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) over at WIFCON, he offered the following description of this year’s model:

It's about 80 Congressional perfections to defense contracting. Some perfections have perfected other annual perfections, etc. There is something for everyone to love in it, I'm sure.

We look at the NDAA to see what impacts contract compliance. What shows up in the NDAA often becomes regulatory direction, sooner or later. Unless it doesn’t. (More on that in a bit.)

Let’s look.

Section 802 revives a very old concept called “alpha contracting” and mandates that “The Secretary of Defense shall select at least 2, and up to 5, initiatives to participate in a pilot to use teams that, with the advice of expert third parties, focus on the development of complex contract technical requirements for services, with each team focusing on developing achievable technical requirements that are appropriately valued and identifying the most effective acquisition strategy to achieve those requirements.” The associated Conference Report states that “this is intended to ensure that technical requirements are appropriately valued and that the most effective acquisition strategy to achieve these requirements is identified.” We shall see.

Section 803 seems pointed directly at Transdigm. The Transdigm situation—and its fallout—is what you get when you get a bad DOD OIG report that seems designed to generate press rather than report objective results. Section 803 is more fallout from that much ballyhooed situation. It modifies “Section 2306a(d) of Title 10, United States Code, to specify that offerors who do not make a good faith effort to comply with a contracting officer’s reasonable requests for data other than certified cost or pricing data are ineligible for award. The amendment would also direct contracting officers, when determining whether an offeror’s price is fair and reasonable, to not base that assessment solely on the historical prices paid by the government.”

Speaking of Transdigm fallout, Section 804 is more of the same, but pointed at the Secretary of Defense. It requires a report by the Comptroller General “on the efforts of the Department of Defense to obtain cost and pricing data for sole source contracts for spare parts."

Section 807 delayed implementation of a prior year’s NDAA requirement. Section 830 of the 2017 NDAA would have required use of only firm, fixed-price contracts for FMS contracts, to be effective within 6 months of the public law’s signature by the President. Well, that deadline came and went—with no new rulemaking. This is one of those times where the DAR Council (apparently) just didn’t want to follow Congressional direction. There must have been a lot of behind-the-scenes activity because, three years later, the implementation of that requirement was delayed for another year. In the meantime, DOD issued a Class Deviation that covered contracting officers’ backsides.

Section 810 makes it official: the Defense Cost Accounting Standards Board is dead. Created by a prior NDAA, it was a white elephant. Nobody wanted it and nobody knew what to do with it. I don’t think it was ever staffed. The best thing that can be said is that its creation spurred the official Cost Accounting Standards Board into action, after years of inactivity. So, bye.

Section 818 requires that “market research for commercial products and services be documented in a manner appropriate to the size and complexity of the acquisition.” So, okay then. That’s super clear and helpful, isn’t it?

Section 826 addresses a bit of DOD nitpickery related to the micro-purchase threshold. As readers know, Congress modified the micro-purchase threshold (and other acquisition thresholds) via a prior NDAA, but the DAR Council was strangely slow to implement the new thresholds. (Many blog articles on this topic were published; you can easily find them.) It took a series of Class Deviations to get around the DAR Council’s lack of alacrity and, even so, the implementation of the new thresholds was uneven, primarily because the legislation was poorly drafted and didn’t expressly modify all the statutory authorities it should have. (Or so went the argument.). Thus, the 2020 NDAA perfects the imperfect language from prior NDAAs, and amends Section 4106(c) of Title 41, United States Code, “by striking ‘$2,500’ and inserting ‘the micro-purchase threshold under Section 1902 of this Title’.” And so DOD is now free to fully implement Congressional intent. Let’s see how long it takes the DAR Council to do so, shall we?

Section 850 provides up to $37.42 million to fund the National Defense Stockpile to acquire rare earth and other critical defense materials. This is a topic we’ve been tracking for ten years. (About 7 years ago, I wrote an article for the ABA’s Public Contract Law Journal on the topic.) Anyway, it’s nice to see Congress finally authorize DOD to take action.

Section 870 permits prime contractor to take credit for lower-tier subcontractor awards with respect to socioeconomic reporting. It states:

… if the subcontracting goals pertain only to a single contract with a Federal agency, the prime contractor may elect to receive credit for small business concerns performing as first tier subcontractors or subcontractors at any tier … in an amount equal to the total dollar value of any subcontracts awarded to such small business concerns; and if the subcontracting goals pertain to more than one contract with one or more Federal agencies, or to one contract with more than one Federal agency, the prime contractor may only receive credit for first tier subcontractors that are small business concerns.

Section 873 directs that small businesses acting as prime contracts be paid as quickly as possible “with a goal of 15 days.” So that’s nice.

There are many other Sections (or “perfections,” if you will) but those are the ones that caught our eye.

Last Updated on Saturday, 25 January 2020 13:23
 

Spearin Doctrine, False Claims, and Recovery of Legal Expenses

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Unless you’re deep into the theory of contractor defenses, you probably don’t know about the Spearin doctrine. The first thing we need to do is talk about it.

The Spearin doctrine is a legal theory established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1918. It holds that the owner (or customer) impliedly warrants the information, plans and specifications which an owner provides to a general contractor. The contractor will not be liable to the owner for loss or damage which results solely from insufficiencies or defects in such information, plans and specifications. As Wikipedia quotes from the original SCOTUS decision—

Where one agrees to do, for a fixed sum, a thing possible to be performed, he will not be excused or become entitled to additional compensation, because unforeseen difficulties are encountered. Thus one who undertakes to erect a structure upon a particular site, assumes ordinarily the risk of subsidence of the soil. But if the contractor is bound to build according to plans and specifications prepared by the owner, the contractor will not be responsible for the consequences of defects in the plans and specifications. This responsibility of the owner is not overcome by the usual clauses requiring builders to visit the site, to check the plans, and to inform themselves of the requirements of the work ... the contractor should be relieved, if he was misled by erroneous statements in the specifications.

Thus, the government is responsible to provide accurate plans and specifications to its contractors, and will be found liable if any defect in those plans and specifications leads to additional costs being incurred.

In what Senior Judge Lettow, of the Court of Federal Claims called “a very unusual potential application of the Spearin doctrine,” the government was found liable for the allowable portion of a contractor’s costs incurred to defend itself from a False Claims Act qui tam suit, when the government’s inaction led to the conditions that the qui tam relater asserted was a false claim.

The case involves several issues that should be of interest to us. It involves allegations of violations of the False Claims Act. It involves legal expenses and application of the cost principle at 31.205-47 to determine cost allowability. It touches cost allocability and the beneficial or causal relationship between legal costs and final cost objectives. Finally, it involves a contractor attempting to recover additional costs on a firm, fixed-price contract. So let’s discuss it!

For reference, see Tolliver Group v. US, 17-1763C, decided January 22, 2020.

In 2011, the Army awarded to DRS Technical Services a $1.41 million fixed-price, level-of-effort (FPLOE) contract to develop and deliver technical manuals for an Army mine clearing vehicle. “… to aid the contractor in developing the manuals without having to engage in extensive reverse engineering, the contract’s PWS [Performance Work Statement] required the Army to provide certain government-furnished information to the contractor, including a technical data package with engineering drawings from the manufacturer … and commercial off-the-shelf manuals.”

Unfortunately, the Army never obtained and/or provided the required technical data package. “Fully aware that the technical data package had not been, and could not be, provided to the contractor as Task Order 10 required, the Army nonetheless directed the work to proceed.” Can you smell an expensive Request for Equitable Adjustment in the Army’s near future? We can.

Tolliver assumed the Task Order 10 contract from DRS through novation in September, 2012. It “endeavored to perform without the technical data package.” In April, 2013, after Tolliver had worked on the contract for approximately seven months, "the Army issued Modification 8, … that changed the terms of performance by removing the government’s obligation to provide the technical data package [and] converted Task Order 10 from a firm-fixed-price, level-of-effort contract to a firm-fixed-price contract at an increased cost of approximately $6.45 million." (Yep, that was an expensive oversight on the Army’s part.)

But the fact remained that Tolliver had been submitting invoices to the Army, invoices that a qui tam relator alleged to be false claims. The relator “asserted that Tolliver violated the False Claims Act while performing Task Order 10 during the period before [issuance of] Modification 8 … by certifying compliance with the technical data package despite having never received that package.” Ultimately the suit was dismissed because “[the Army] intended to provide [Tolliver] with [the technical data package] for use in developing the manuals, it did not do so, it knew that it did not do so, and still instructed [Tolliver] to proceed with performance.” The dismissal was appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Throughout the course of litigation, Tolliver incurred nearly $250,000 in attorney’s fees. Pursuant to 31.205-47(e), since the disposition of the litigation was dismissal, Tolliver was entitled to claim 80% of its legal expenses as allowable costs. (The remaining 20% were, by rule, unallowable—apparently as a penalty for getting dragged into court.) Thus, Tolliver submitted a claim to the contracting officer, seeking reimbursement under Task Order 10 for $195,890 in allowable legal fees it had incurred in defending itself against the suit. The contracting officer rejected the claim, stating the contract was “a firm fixed price order which contains no provision for [the government to assume the risk of legal costs].” In addition, the Contracting Officer’s Final Decision (COFD) stated that the legal costs—

… were not allowable under the cost principles of FAR Subpart 31.2 because they were neither allocable nor allowable within the terms of the contract. The [COFD] found that the costs were not allocable because they were not incurred specifically for the contract and did not provide the government with a benefit. Likewise, it found that they were proscribed by the fixed-price nature of the contract in the absence of a contract clause providing otherwise.

(Citations omitted.)

Citing to the Spearin doctrine, Judge Lettow found that the Army’s failure to provide the promised technical data package was the proximate cause for Tolliver having to defend itself against the False Claim Act suit. The government argument that the fixed-price nature of the contract prevented an equitable adjustment of this type was rejected, because the original Spearin contract was also fixed-price, and “the Supreme Court allowed an equitable adjustment precisely because of the implied warranty that if the contractual specifications were complied with, performance would have been satisfactory.”

While Tolliver was the victor of the entitlement argument, the Judge declined to decide quantum. He wrote “In their motions for summary judgment, however, the parties spilt little ink addressing the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fees at issue. Although the contracting officer appears not to have disputed the amount of defense costs Tolliver claimed, this court must review the contracting officer’s final decision de novo …Therefore, this court cannot enter judgment based solely on the contracting officer’s acceptance, or decision not to address, the reasonableness of Tolliver’s legal fees.” Further, the court did not address the other contracting officer contentions regarding cost allocability.

All in all, an interesting case.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 February 2020 21:13
 

DOD Office of Inspector General Criticizes Contracting Officers (Again)

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This blog has been active for more than ten years. That’s a decade of reporting observations and opinions about what we have seen in the Federal acquisition environment.

For much of that time, we’ve observed the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DOD OIG) criticize the contracting officers of the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA). Some of that criticism has been warranted, to be sure.i However, in our view (as expressed time and time again on this blog) much of the criticism has not been fair, or has been the result of sloppy (or even misleading) audit procedures that seemed designed to generate headlines and Congressional support rather than report an independent and objective conclusion. Much of that OIG criticism has been directed at contracting officers who deviate from Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) audit findings without an adequately documented rationale.

For us, the bottom-line has been that DCMA contracting officers are charged with using independent business judgment to resolve administrative disagreements before they ripen into disputes. This is the policy of the United States Federal government, as expressed in Federal Acquisition Regulation 33.204. The policy is clear: “The Government’s policy is to try to resolve all contractual issues in controversy by mutual agreement at the contracting officer’s level. Reasonable efforts should be made to resolve controversies prior to the submission of a claim.”

The rationale for that policy position should also be clear: litigation wastes time and resources of both sides. The government simply does not have sufficient attorneys to litigate every disagreement, nor do contracting officers have sufficient time available to support those attorneys. Discovery efforts are lengthy and painful. Depositions are lengthy and painful. Going to court is often a crapshoot, and often bad precedents are set based on bad fact patterns. This is true for both sides, and thus both sides have a vested interest in avoiding litigation wherever possible.

Yet it seems that the auditors from the DOD OIG don’t see it that way. Based on the various audit reports we’ve seen (and discussed here), the OIG auditors seem to think that the use of independent business judgment should be curtailed unless the contracting officer has (1) reviewed all positions with legal support, and (2) documented all deviations from the initial DCAA audit positions.

Lost in this kerfuffle is the fact that DCAA audit positions are not always correct. Just before this blog started, you would have to go a long way to find anybody who thought DCAA’s audit conclusions were accurate or well-supported. It was the DOD OIG itself that leveled quite a bit of criticism at the DCAA audit procedures. Not to mention all the Congressional hearings. There was a real (and valid) belief at the time that DCAA as an audit agency had overstayed its welcome within DOD, and that DCMA contracting officers had better find alternate means of getting field pricing assistance or incurred cost audit assistance. That DCAA has come back from the brink is laudable—but its reputation was tainted and, for many, remains tainted to this day.

Thus, there is a tacit or even overt understanding that DCMA contracting officers will not always agree with DCAA audit findings—nor do they need to. As then-DCMA Director Charlie Williams expressed it to his contracting officers in 2011, with respect to forward pricing rates—

Working closely with DCAA auditors is a critical factor in your ability to be successful in the final outcomes that result from your rate decisions. … it is our policy that when you receive an audit report from DCAA, you should use the audited rates as the single government forward pricing rate recommendation. While this is policy, you will not find anything that states, ACOs should ignore common sense or relinquish their discretion in promulgating FPRRs. So simply put, it is my expectation that ACOs should always apply judgment and well informed thought prior to making any decision. I fully expect that there will be times when the contracting officer determines, in his or her judgment, that the rates contained in the audit may not be the best representation of future projections. When that judgment is well informed by fact and data, you must not be reticent or feel constrained in communicating your views with the auditors and if necessary requesting a Board of Review to elevate real differences.

But that was then and this is now.

Today, the DOD OIG criticizes DCMA contracting officers for using “common sense” and “discretion” to resolve differences in opinion between contractor and DCAA. And that is the relationship: DCAA has expressed a conclusion, the contractor disagrees, and it is up to the contracting officer to try to resolve that disagreement before it leads to litigation. Or, as the Claims Court stated: “[T]he contracting officer must act impartially in settling disputes. He must not act as a representative of one of the contracting parties, but as an impartial, unbiased judge.”ii

Despite the foregoing, DOD OIG auditors don’t see it that way. The latest manifestation of their concerns is Report No. DODIG-2020-049, a redacted version of which was issued January 10, 2020. In that report, the OIG auditors criticized 18 (of 28) contracting officers for failing to “adequately explain why they disagreed with DCAA’s recommendations to assess penalties on $43 million in unallowable indirect costs.” More specifically—

  • For $32 million, the contracting officers determined that the costs were not subject to penalties. However, the DCMA contracting officers did not document adequate rationale for disagreeing with DCAA that the costs were unallowable and subject to penalties.

  • For $11 million, the contracting officers determined that the costs met the FAR criteria for waiving penalties. However, the DCMA contracting officers did not document adequate rationale to show that the DoD contractor met the FAR criteria for waiving penalties.

Thus, according to the OIG auditors, “the contracting officers did not comply with the FAR requirement that contracting officers document adequate rationale when they disagree with DCAA recommendations.”

Because of the alleged violations of FAR requirements, “DCMA will review the 18 DCAA audit reports in which contracting officers did not document adequate rationale and attempt to recoup any unallowable costs and assess penalties and interest.” So if you are one of those 18 contractors who thought you had settled your final rates, you may want to think again.

We would say more but we think we made our point. It very much seems to us that any attempt by DCMA contracting officers to use their judgment and discretion to resolve controversies before they become full-fledged disputes will be met with criticism from the DOD Office of Inspector General.

 

i Pun fully intended.

ii Penner Installation Corp. v. United States, 89 F. Supp. 545, 547 (Ct. Cl. 1950); aff’d by an equally divided court, 340 U.S. 898 (1950). Cited in Atkins North America & Mactech Engineering and Consulting v. US, No. 09-112 C (Ct. Cl. Aug 30, 2012); motion for interlocutory appeal denied.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 January 2020 18:51
 

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Newsflash

Effective January 1, 2019, Nick Sanders has been named as Editor of two reference books published by LexisNexis. The first book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Federal Acquisition Regulation. The second book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Cost Accounting Standards. Nick replaces Darrell Oyer, who has edited those books for many years.