The nine people who pleaded guilty to snooping into the passport files of famous celebrities and politicians such as then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were not the only workers at the State Department who peeked into confidential documents.
The Washington Times has learned that at least eleven other State Department workers also have been caught snooping into passport files. But these workers have avoided criminal charges and appear to have kept their jobs.
According to investigative memos released to The Times through an open records request, the additional workers glanced through the files out of boredom, “dumb curiosity” and “just being nosy.” They were admonished by the department for their behavior but not prosecuted.
For example, one State Department official in Washington accessed secret passport files more than 40 times, but faced no criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired, according to the memos, which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
“I wasn’t thinking at the time. It was not a smart judgment call,” another worker caught snooping told investigators.
State Department employees and contract workers came under investigation last year for snooping into the passport files of presidential candidates, including Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. The scandal went public after The Times reported about the unauthorized inspection of Mr. Obama’s files in March 2008.
Since then, nine State Department workers and contractors have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Accessing passport files outside of official government duties is a violation of the federal Privacy Act of 1974.
But the memos released to The Times show that at least 11 others were never prosecuted and have kept their jobs after being caught doing the same thing. Instead, these employees received letters of warning or admonishment from the department’s human resources office or other offices after prosecutors declined to press charges.
State Department spokesman Andrew Laine confirmed that workers given warning or admonishment letters were not fired. He added that disciplinary actions for the offense in general range from letters of warning to termination, depending on the “frequency and motivation of the misconduct.”
“The State Department considers the protection of passport records a serious matter and will pursue disciplinary action against all cases of unauthorized access,” he said.
As another precaution, he said, the department has deactivated accounts for about 15,000 users of the State Department’s electronic passport database.
The Times obtained records on the snooping through the State Department’s office of inspector general, which redacted the names of the employees who were not charged criminally.
The employees offered a host of reasons for snooping:
- Caught looking up the files of co-workers, television personalities and celebrities, one worker in Washington confessed to “just being nosy,” adding, “I do regret going into those files but never did I mean any harm to the applicant or to the department in doing so.”
- An employee in Arlington, Va., said she didn’t recall illegally accessing anyone’s files without approval and suggested that co-workers might have used her computer.