Small Business Administration:

Undercover Tests Show HUBZone Program Remains Vulnerable to Fraud and Abuse

GAO-10-920T: Published: Jul 28, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 2010.

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This testimony discusses the results of our investigation of the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) program. In fiscal year 2009, federal agencies obligated nearly $3 billion in sole source or set-aside contracts to firms participating in the HUBZone program. Created in 1997, the program provides federal contracting assistance to small businesses located in HUBZones--economically distressed areas with low income levels or high unemployment rates. Qualified businesses in these areas are eligible to bid on federal prime contracts and subcontracts available exclusively to program participants, in addition to benefiting from other contracting preferences. The SBA must certify that a small business meets the following criteria to qualify for the program: the firm must be owned and controlled by one or more U.S. citizens; at least 35 percent of full-time employees must live in a HUBZone; and the principal office, where most qualifying employees work, must be in a HUBZone. According to the SBA's Dynamic Small Business Web site, as of July 2010, 9,300 firms were participating in the program. Over the last 2 years, we have reported on fraud and abuse and other concerns with the HUBZone program. In July 2008, we testified that the SBA's lack of an effective fraud prevention program meant its application process could not provide reasonable assurance that only eligible firms were being certified to participate in the program. Using fictitious employee and owner information and fabricated documentation, we easily obtained HUBZone certification for four bogus firms. We also identified 10 firms from the Washington, D.C., metro area that participated in the program even though they did not meet eligibility criteria. In March 2009, we reported on 19 additional HUBZone firms from Alabama, California, and Texas that were not eligible for the program. This testimony summarizes our most recent report regarding the HUBZone program. Our report and this statement responds to Congress request that we (1) perform additional proactive testing of the SBA's HUBZone certification process and (2) determine what actions, if any, the SBA has taken against the 29 case study firms we identified in our prior work. In conducting our work, we proactively tested SBA's application process by applying for HUBZone certification for four bogus businesses with fictitious owners and employees. For all four bogus businesses, we used publicly available resources to fabricate documents. To determine what actions, if any, the SBA has taken against the 29 case study firms, we made inquiries with SBA officials. We also analyzed data from the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. We did not attempt to project the extent of fraud and abuse in the program nor systematically assess HUBZone program controls. Our work was done in accordance with quality standards for investigations as set forth by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

The SBA continues to struggle with reducing fraud risks in its HUBZone certification process, although SBA has taken steps to bolster SBA's controls. In our previous investigations, we found that many of the firms in the 29 cases fraudulently used "virtual offices" and fake business locations as their principal offices to qualify for HUBZone status. Our testing revealed that the SBA still does not adequately authenticate self-reported information--especially principal office locations--to ensure program eligibility. Specifically, the agency certified three of our four bogus firms based on fraudulent information. We used fabricated explanations, fraudulent documentation, and borrowed addresses or principal offices, including the Alamo, a public storage facility in Florida, and a city hall in Texas. The SBA lost application materials for our fourth firm on multiple occasions, forcing us to abandon our application. The SBA's failure to verify principal office locations--even through a simple Internet search--leaves the program vulnerable to firms misrepresenting their eligibility, preventing program benefits from going to intended targets. As of March 2010, the SBA has reviewed the status of all 29 firms we referred to it from our prior HUBZone investigations. Of the 29 firms, 16 were decertified by the SBA, 8 voluntarily withdrew from the HUBZone program, and 5 were found by the agency to be in compliance with program requirements and remain certified. We did not attempt to verify SBA's work. Although SBA indicated that firms sometimes come in and out of compliance while in the program, we maintain that the five firms SBA determined to meet HUBZone program requirements were out of compliance at the time of our initial review. In addition, we found that five decertified firms continued to market themselves, through their Web sites, as HUBZone certified even after the SBA removed them from the HUBZone program. Since our March 2009 report, the 29 firms we identified have received more than $66 million in federal obligations for new contracts. Not all of these obligations are necessarily improper, and some do not relate to HUBZone contracts.

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