Federal set-asides, contracts specifically awarded by government-labeled minorities based on gender and race, are an everyday occurrence here in Washington, D.C. Over the decades, the race hustling lobby has cut itself in for some serious federal contract action abetted by a willing quid pro quo from Democrats in Congress and friendly denizens in the executive branch.
A contact on the inside doesn’t hurt either. The deal is that the feds shovel the set-aside awardees money and the contractors live high on the hog and hire willy-nilly. The feds look like they’re creating jobs for the underserved and everyone goes home with what they want.
In the ho-hum precincts of government, few bat an eye at this. But occasionally there comes along a case so egregious that some actually take notice because the level of contractor chicanery is so evident.
On that note, meet the data firm RSIS and by extension, current contract awardee Trowbridge and Trowbridge (T&T) and its $66 million Job Corps data center contract with the Department of Labor.
How to Game a Government Contract
Job Corps is one of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society boondoggles that survives because it has a military-sounding-but-not-really-military program title no one has the guts to kill. It’s supposed to be a vocational tech training program to help 16-24-year-olds get jobs. In reality, like most Great Society programs, it’s more of a bureaucratic employment service for failed liberal arts majors. If you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers you get the drift.
Job Corps purports to help about 45,000 students a year climb the ladder of success. T&T provides tech support and other services for 65,000 users in the Job Corps data system.
The key players in this setup are Linda Estep, a Labor Department information technology director, and Christine Brandell, a Trowbridge executive and former RSIS employee. Estep has been the Labor Department’s IT honcho at the Austin, Texas Job Corps site since 1990. Brandell is T&T’s project manager for the contract.
According to one high-level expert in the government-contracting industry, Estep and Brandell “are really close. They go way back at least 10 years.” The two met when Brandell was at RSIS and Estep was her client at the Labor Department.
RSIS was a successful black-owned business at that time, owned by Rodney Hunt. Ron Trowbridge worked with Hunt at RSIS. Hunt got the contract through a minority set-aside. Unfortunately, Hunt had a taste for drugs, hookers, and general chaos. When RSIS went south and had to sell because of Hunt’s “issues,” Trowbridge used the money he had made from the sale to conveniently bid on the contract. To keep the minority set-aside, Trowbridge installed his daughter, Karen, at the helm. He got the contract.
Trowbridge bought the firm Altech in 2010. It was the contract awardee after RSIS. It had a disabled veteran-owned business designation, but was a stalking horse for T&T and hired many RSIS personnel. Altech held the Job Corps contract prior to T&T getting it in 2016. Enlightenment Capital bought Trowbridge in 2019. Former RSIS hand Brandell worked as a director at Altech before Trowbridge bought it. He brought her on.
Stay with me here.
The contract followed Brandell from one place to the other on to another, all the time working with Estep at Job Corps. Not only that, but the T&T contract with the Labor Department apparently is under very generous terms. It’s a “time and materials” contract, not a “performance work statement” deal. It grades on the time you spend working and what you spend fulfilling the contract, not how well you do.
Contracts should be based purely on merit, not on race, gender, or other factors unrelated to performance. Says a source in the industry: “There are supposed to be checks and balances. But there is no oversight in this situation. There are no checks and balances.”
You (Don’t) Get What You Pay For
So, to clarify and recap: The story is one of a professional relationship between Estep and Brandell that seems to allow the contract to follow Brandell no matter where she works. It also features a sexed-up, drug-addled, minority set-aside awardee with a foreclosed $24 million home who ran his firm into the ground and a cynical ploy from a top former employee with inside information who grabbed it and put his own daughter in charge to safely hold on to the minority set-aside.
When I contacted Estep to ask about her relationship with Brandell, she said she had “known [Brandell] a long time” but “had very little dealings with her.” She added: “This matter has to do with corporate competition.”
I also tried to contact Christine Brandell and Ron Trowbridge by phone, but they were unavailable for comment.
How has T&T/Enlightenment done with the contract? Not well.
There appears to be a problem with the execution of the contract based on a recent report by management consultants KPMG. Among other things, KPMG found:
Nine of fifteen systems tested this year still had active user accounts after individuals’ employment had been terminated. One of these systems contained user accounts that appeared to have been accessed after the users’ employment had been terminated. Failing to promptly remove a separated user’s account increases risk of harm to DOL’s information systems. A disgruntled, separated user could wreak havoc by deleting files, compromising protected information, or corrupting the integrity of data.
Asked about KPMG’s report, Estep said, “I haven’t seen it.” But she also claimed, “They (T&T) do wonderful work for Job Corps.”
One would hope that a set-up job this cozy might at least have gotten the operations right. But T&T’s talent for playing footsie with the feds only seems to be matched, at least according to KPMG, by its inability to run Job Corps data centers.
Granted, this kind of seeming cronyism, race hustling, and inefficiency is par for the course in the federal government and so this story isn’t exactly news. Yet as an example of what passes as “good enough for government work,” this deal appears to have it all. As such it is one of the most visibly representative cases in some time of the very comfortable rot at the core of the federal contracting system. Somebody should something about it.
Though, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it.