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Top-secret clearance checks falsified

Time, money now spent to probe fraud

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Federal authorities responsible for granting security clearances to government employees and contractors are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating the investigators.

Government inspectors say they have undertaken a broader campaign in recent years to root out fraud in background checks as more national security clearances are being sought than ever before.

Overall, court records reviewed by The Washington Times show at least 170 confirmed falsifications of interviews or record checks and more than 1,000 others that couldn't be verified. The background investigators, whose work helps determine who gets top-secret security clearance, were submitting forms saying they conducted interviews or verified official documents when they never did.

"The monetary loss sustained by the government does not, nor cannot, represent the cost associated with potential compromise of our nation's security and the trust of the American people in its government's workforce," Kathy L. Dillaman, associate director in charge of investigations at the Office of Personnel Management, wrote in a victim-impact statement for a recent court case involving a convicted investigator.

Douglas Shontz, a national security researcher at the Rand Corp. who had conducted back ground checks at the Defense Department, said background investigations used to be the purview of retired FBI agents and police detectives. That has changed as more and more contractors and employees require security clearances. Many of the background checks are now outsourced.

"You have a huge push to get people in the door," he said.

Mr. Shontz said that, in general, background interviews with neighbors, former employers, associates and others help determine whether someone could be more vulnerable to taking bribes or likely to talk too freely about sensitive government information.

"They can highlight potential issues for follow-up," he said.

The OPM's office of inspector general has an initiative "focused on fabrication cases involving OPM Federal Investigative Services background investigators," said Michelle Schmitz, assistant inspector general for investigations.

OPM handles background investigations for most federal agencies. Overall, OPM processes about 2 million background investigations per year.

During the past three years, court records show, seven investigators and two records checkers have been convicted of federal crimes in Washington involving falsification of records. There is no indication in any of the cases that the people who got the security clearances eventually were determined to be unsuitable.

Still, investigators were forced to reopen old cases, and one falsified interview or document check can raise doubts about entire investigations.

"In addition to the potential damage to OPM's reputation as the primary provider of federal background investigations, the cost of investigating and correcting the case is substantial both in time and money," Ms. Dillaman wrote in a victim-impact statement for a recent court case.

Those convicted of lying about background checks have faced sentences ranging from probation to more than two years in federal prison, court records show.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington this month announced a 90-day prison sentence given to a former government background investigator, Thomas Fitzgerald, for falsifying information in more than two dozen investigative reports from March 2005 to May 2006. He was ordered to pay more than $100,000 to OPM's investigative services branch for the cost of reopening numerous investigations that were assigned to him.

Another investigator, Catherine Webb, faces up to 18 months in prison at her scheduled sentencing next month in federal court. She has pleaded guilty and has agreed to pay nearly $75,000 in restitution.

In 2009, a former contract investigator, George Abraham, was sentenced to more than two years in federal prison after he was convicted on six counts of making a false statement in his background reports. Authorities said subjects in Abraham's background investigations were seeking top-secret clearances for positions in the Air Force, the Army, the Navy and the Treasury Department.

In several cases, defense attorneys suggested in sentencing memos that the investigators started to cut corners because of stress and increasing work demands.

But security consultant Chris McGoey, based in Los Angeles, said that's no excuse for investigators saying that they interviewed people or checked documents when they did not.

"If I get so busy, I just have to tell the client I can't do it," he said. "But you don't say that you did it and charge the fees. That's fraud."

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