AT&T Scores Big New Contract From Government Agency After Hiring Their CIO

AT&T nabbed two big scores from one federal agency this year: one, a top executive with years of government experience and two, a lucrative contract to be that agency’s mobile carrier. Both AT&T and the agency say the two are unrelated, and they very well may be. But the timing highlights once again that the revolving door between government and business is an opening not only for career opportunities, but also for big questions about how corporations can gain undue influence in Washington.

The Center for Public Integrity reports that AT&T just won a major contract with the Government Services Administration, which handles real estate, IT, and purchasing logistics (all the admin stuff, basically) for the federal government. The contract the GSA awarded to AT&T is worth close to $13 million and includes about 12,000 mobile devices, according to CPI.

Verizon holds the previous, expiring contract for providing mobile services to the GSA. The transition between providers will take place over the first half of next year.

Federal contracts expire and change hands all the time. This one is different because AT&T picked up one notable new hire for their “government solutions” team back in January: Casey Coleman, previously chief information officer for the GSA.

It’s yet another example of the revolving door between the public and private sectors. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that executive-level talent would shift between the two worlds. Regulating agencies benefit from having subject-area experts with field experience in their ranks, and corporations benefit from having employees with expertise navigating government in theirs.

But of course, it’s not just about what you know; it never is. It’s all about who you know, what connections you bring, and where you might still have a few inches of extra leverage due to those relationships.

And that’s what makes the AT&T contract, and others like it, deserve an extra level of scrutiny.

CPI writes that both AT&T and the GSA say that the contract was awarded through a completely above-board competitive process, and that all rules and regulations pertaining to former government officials’ interactions with current government employees were followed. A GSA spokesperson told CPI in a statement that Coleman “was long gone before we received any proposals and had no involvement with the evaluation of the proposals that GSA received,” and added, “She had no direct or indirect part or involvement in the procurement or subsequent award.” And all of that is no doubt true.

Still, even if Coleman never once placed a call to, sent an e-mail to, or had a coffee with a single soul in the GSA after she left, that doesn’t mean she wasn’t an integral part of the deal. AT&T doesn’t hire a former government employee and pay them an executive’s salary just for fun; they do it for what the company will gain from her employment.

As one government watchdog group put it to CPI, “Someone in Coleman’s position can provide some really valuable advice and guidance behind the scenes that helps win a contract.” Just because she herself did not take any actions doesn’t mean she couldn’t gently suggest to others within AT&T which actions to take, which numbers to call, or which arguments would be most compelling.

This is, unfortunately, the game that every big business angling for lucrative federal contracts plays. When two or three wireless companies are competing for a contract worth tens of millions of dollars, having the right executive in the room, with the right knowledge about their former agency, can be the competitive edge that makes or breaks the deal. And as long as that’s the case, and as long as no rules prevent it, the revolving door will continue to turn.

‘Revolving door’ spins between AT&T, GSA [Center for Public Integrity]

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