Don't be a rat!

Contracts are formal documents requiring your John Hancock, but can be as simple as a verbal agreement between a person trying to get the mission done and a vendor who doesn't know the contracting process. Airmen are reminded that only contracting officers who have been delegated the appropriate legal responsibility are permitted to actually bind the government into contractual agreements. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Nicolo J. Daniello)

Contracts are formal documents requiring your John Hancock, but can be as simple as a verbal agreement between a person trying to get the mission done and a vendor who doesn't know the contracting process. Airmen are reminded that only contracting officers who have been delegated the appropriate legal responsibility are permitted to actually bind the government into contractual agreements. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Nicolo J. Daniello)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- The word "rat" carries with it many meanings and connotations, such as in "I'm gonna rat you out," "you dirty rat," "rat race," and, of course, "aww, rats!" Regardless of the meaning, I think we can all agree that most uses of the word are negative (no offense intended to all the loving pet rat owners out there).

There's one usage of the word that many people are unfamiliar with, but it's one that can result in painful paperwork and even the forfeiture of personal wealth - contract ratification, or the "rat" process.

"Just what is that?" you might ask.

Here's a scenario to help you understand what it is and how this all-too-common process can affect anyone in the military:

You hit the "print" button on the word processing program you're using, but nothing happens. You check the printer, call the communications squadron helpdesk, beat your head against the wall, try a hard reboot, beat your head against the wall again and then finally concede that your color printer is busted. Since you really need that document now, and in color, you ask around to see who might be able to help. No one has a color printer you can print from, but someone mentions they know a great tech whiz downtown that can help. You call the techie guru, sign a service request and he fixes your printer. He then hands you a bill.

Did you know you just broke the law? "Aww, rats!" you might exclaim.

Accidentally or intentionally obligating the government to pay a bill when you don't have the authority to do so is illegal and now your local contracting officer needs to try to fix your mistake using the ratification process. At best, they can ratify the contract and all you get is the pain of a lot of paperwork and some counseling. At worst, the ratification process cannot rectify the situation and you are now responsible to foot the bill and can be subject to disciplinary action.

Bear in mind, contracts aren't just formal documents requiring your John Hancock. They can be as simple as verbal agreements between a person trying to get the mission done and a vendor who doesn't know the contracting process. However, despite all the good intentions in the world, somebody is going to get in trouble for violating the law.

So, how do you avoid this ratty situation?

Remember that only contracting officers who have been delegated the appropriate legal responsibility are permitted to actually bind the government into contractual agreements. It's that simple. If there's any question in your mind about the legality of a purchase or agreement you want to make, ask your contracting professionals for help.

For more information, contact the 92nd Contracting Squadron at 509-247-4877 or 509-247-4884 for assistance regarding appropriate use of the Government Purchase Card.