The American Small Business League has been wrestling with the Small Business Administration over small business contracting for a while. In the latest chapter of the struggle, a San Francisco District judge ruled that the names of federal contract recipients should be accessible to the public from the SBA.

Lloyd Chapman, president of the ASBL, calls the ruling a victory. He routinely accuses the SBA of hiding data, figures he believes confirm that contracts awarded to small businesses each year fall far short of the federally-mandated 23 percent benchmark.

"What's noteworthy is that the government fought it at all in the first place," he says, "You'd think it would be pretty benign information."

Eric Benderson, associate general counsel for the SBA, says it's more complicated than that. At the time of the initial request, he explained, the SBA did not have the data that the ASBL requested--specific names of those companies awarded contracts--because that data was housed at the US General Services Administration. Though the SBA did not provide the names of awardees, Benderson says, they directed the ASBL to contact GSA.

Benderson explained that the ASBL pursued a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit anyway, against the SBA. When the judge ruled in favor of the ASBL, the SBA decided to pursue an appeal. Benderson says that they felt the decision could set an undesirable precedent: one that would require government agencies to obtain information that is not in their immediate possession or control from other government agencies to provide to those who request it.

The proper allocation of federal business contracts is a problem, says Benderson, but one that the SBA has recognized and is seeking to ameliorate, not hide. "We are the ones who pointed it out, and we are working on it," he says.

The ASBL acknowledged that they did receive a list of recipients of federal small business contracts from the GSA before filing suit, but that they had pursued the lawsuit as a matter of principle because the SBA itself did not provide the information.