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How to Run a Background Check on Companies Awarded Federal Contracts

A worker finishes installing solar panels funded by federal stimulus money in October 2010, in Lakewood, Colo. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Below are some suggestions for performing your own background check on companies awarded federal contracts. These are suggestions, not a complete guide. 

Suggestions:

A good place to start is your local newspaper, many of which are searchable online. Here's another resourceUSA.gov can help you get to government websites to check a company's record with federal and state agencies. Many libraries also provide access to databases likeLexisNexis. An Internet search on a site like Google may also bring up red flags.

Now, on to specifics.

The federal government uses what's called a DUNS number to identify related organizations receiving federal funding. Issued by Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), DUNS numbers are nine digits long. More information on DUNS numbers is available in this White House guide. Sources that list DUNS numbers make cross-referencing a bit easier. But not all sources list DUNS numbers, so it's useful to cross-reference a firm's name against other information, including the address and/or names of executives. Or against another identifier such as an employer identification number, EIN. Local reference librarians or state and municipal officials are another good source, and can point you to additional resources.

See if the company has been suspended or barred from working with the federal government. We analyzed the first 500 contracts and didn't find any matches, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that the database has so many holes that federal officials have had trouble stopping bad contractors from getting new contracts. POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database is also useful. It goes beyond suspensions and debarments although it only focuses on the top 130 contractors.

Check the company's workplace safety record. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a Web site where you can search for inspections and violations.

Check the company's environmental record. The Environmental Protection Agency has a one-stop shop for pollution checks.

You can also check for the company's political connections. Visit the company's Web site to get a list of top executives and the board of directors. Corporate filings are often posted online via Secretary of State Web sites. Do their bios show they once worked for the agency that awarded the contract? Did the company hire a lobbyist to try for stimulus work? Check the box for client name and put the company's name in the search box. What about political donations? You can see if the company contributed to any federal campaigns at OpenSecrets.org. Many states also have campaign finance Web sites that you can find on Google. If you have trouble, look on CampaignFinance.org.

Last, check federal, state and local courts for any lawsuits. Some states allow you to search for court cases online. But in other areas, you may have to trek to the local courthouse.

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