- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stewart E. Chase, a background investigator for the federal government, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to charges that he falsified reports of prospective federal employees and contractors.

The case is the latest in a string of background fraud investigations that have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for officials to reinvestigate cases tainted by fraud.

For many of the cases, phony background checks ended up in reports that were used to give employees or contractors clearances for access to top secret government information.

Making his first court appearance Thursday in Washington, Chase, 53, faces up to five years in prison. Under sentencing guidelines, he would receive anywhere from 18 to 24 months behind bars.

Chase worked as a contract employee for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which handles most of the background checks for government contractors and employees.

Authorities said that in more than four dozen investigations, Chase stated that he interviewed a source or checked a record when he actually never did, according to court records.

Prosecutors say OPM was forced to open up his old cases and investigate them all over again at a cost of at least $131,101. That’s how much Chase agreed to pay in restitution.

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to ask that Chase be locked up pending sentencing.

Chase’s case isn’t unusual. In the past three years, at least eight background investigators and two records checkers have been convicted of charges stemming from making false statements about background checks.

Investigators convicted of lying about background checks have faced sentences ranging from probation to more than two years in federal prison. Most receive at least some prison time, according to court records.

Last month, Thomas Fitzgerald, 48, a former special agent for OPM, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 180 days of home detention after pleading guilty to making a false statement during his work as a background investigator.

Authorities said he admitted falsifying work in more than two dozen cases. OPM estimated the cost of conducting new investigations at $106,771.

Another former background investigator, Catherine Webb, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in Washington next week.

Prosecutors said her falsifications cost OPM $73,293, which Webb agreed to pay back. She’s seeking probation, but prosecutors want her to receive at least five months of jail time and five months home detention.

In a review of nine recent cases, The Washington Times reported last month that there were least 170 confirmed falsifications of background checks and more than 1,000 others that could not be verified.

Overall, OPM handles about 2 million background checks each year.

Officials at the Office of the Inspector General for OPM said they have an initiative under way to uncover phony background checks.

In its most recent semi-annual report to Congress, the inspector general called falsifications in background checks a “serious national security concern.”

“If a background investigation contains incorrect, incomplete or fraudulent information, a qualified candidate may be wrongfully denied employment or an unsuitable person may be cleared and allowed access to federal facilities or classified information,” the inspector general’s office said.