Editorial: Ogilvy's win should stand

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Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., was on target when he remarked that "something is going on here that doesn't smell right." His comment came during a hearing July 26, where he defended his crusade against WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. But any aroma from Ogilvy's overbilling the government for work on the White House's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is now matched by that surrounding the House of Representatives' bid to override contracting rules to make Ogilvy pay-again-for its past foul-ups.

This dispute now involves issues bigger than just Ogilvy. The government purchasing system can be complex, but any agency that works for the federal government, or might want to, needs to stand up for a contracting system where rules are not changed after the fact, and where political influence is kept at bay.

That Ogilvy sinned against its government client, and embarrassed itself and the agency business, no longer seems at issue. While it never admitted fraudulent conduct, it paid a $1.8 million penalty in January. A criminal inquiry into Ogilvy's conduct is still open, but the agency nonetheless satisfied contracting officials, who could have disqualified it from further work on the campaign, that it had cleaned up its act. It also agreed to further measures to assure compliance with "the highest standards of business ethics and integrity," as a federal contracting manager put it.

In the private sector, an agency that falsely billed a client in a serious way might simply have been shown the door and asked not to come back. The government, however, has rules to provide a level of fairness to contractors, and to keep politicians out of the picking of contractors as much as possible. Those rules allowed Ogilvy a second chance to bid for the White House anti-drug ad contract. And it won. Barring disclosure that the rules were unjustly bent in Ogilvy's favor, the agency community should urge the Senate to just say no to the House.

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