- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2014

An investigative analyst for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s office of inspector general “misused his position” to dig up criminal history and personal information through the FBI’s criminal database — the latest example of government employees snooping into sensitive electronic law enforcement files.

The employee no longer works for the inspector general’s office, but prosecutors in Maryland and the District of Columbia declined to pursue a case against the man.

The investigation came to light Thursday after The Washington Times obtained records on the case through the Freedom of Information Act.

Similar reports of misconduct have surfaced in recent years involving police officers in New York, Tennessee and New Jersey, where one officer faced charges in 2012 of using a state police database to track down a woman online whom he saw while driving and waved hello.

The HUD investigative analyst’s name was redacted in records provided to The Times. He was a GS-13 employee, earning anywhere from $89,000 to about $115,000 per year based on D.C. locality pay.

The records don’t say explicitly why he accessed the FBI's National Crime Information Center database, but the final report on the investigation suggests the reasons involved a domestic situation. The same analyst used his inspector general credentials to falsely represent himself as a law enforcement officer, according to the report.

Dubbed the “lifeline of law enforcement” on the FBI website, the National Crime Information Center is an electronic database containing millions of criminal files. It’s available to law enforcement agencies across the country, averaging about 8 million transactions per day in fiscal 2011, according to the FBI website.

But the files, which contain information on stolen property, license plates, wanted people, protective orders and other records, are limited strictly for law enforcement purposes.

Even the log-in screen for the database contains a warning banner that says, in part, “Unauthorized or improper use of this system may result in disciplinary action, and civil and criminal penalties,” records in the HUD case show.

Concerns about misconduct aren’t new.

In 1993, congressional auditors issued a report concluding that the National Crime Information Center is “extremely vulnerable to misuse, particularly by individuals with authorized access, due to its organizational structure and control weaknesses in some state systems that access NCIC.”

In the HUD case, the inspector general’s office sent its misconduct findings to federal prosecutors in the District and Maryland. Records show the D.C. office declined to file charges for jurisdictional reasons, while the Maryland office turned down the case, citing lack of resources and the fact that HUD had “administrative remedies” at its disposal.

The inspector general’s office confirmed Thursday that the analyst no longer works at the watchdog agency, which is charged with rooting out waste and fraud in federal housing programs.

“As you can clearly see from the documents, we promptly moved to investigate the isolated instance of misconduct,” HUD Inspector General David Montoya said in an email statement to The Times.

“As with any large organization, issues of misconduct occasionally arise,” Mr. Montoya added. “In this case, we addressed the situation, and the employee no longer works for us.”

Stephen Fisher, a spokesman for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services division, which oversees the National Crime Information Center, said officials have an audit process to catch misuse of the system.

“Audit results and corrective measures are communicated between the agency and CJIS Division,” he said in an email.

One of the more high-profile examples of law enforcement database misuse involved a New York City police officer and would-be cannibal, Gilbert Valle, who was arrested in 2012 on charges of conspiring to torture, rape, kill, cook and eat women, and using the information center to track down his targets. He was arrested before putting his plans into action, and a jury last month found him guilty of conspiracy.

Most cases aren’t quite so bizarre.

Last year, the FBI arrested a New York City police detective, Edwin Vargas, on charges he paid thousands of dollars to email hackers to get the log-in credentials for more than 40 email accounts, including 21 affiliated with the police department. Vargas also used the NCIC to dig up information on two fellow offices, authorities said. According to a court docket, he pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Sean Fritz, a Memphis, Tenn., police officer, was charged in 2012 with two counts of computer fraud to “aid a confidential source for illegal purpose,” according to a release from the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. Court records show he was put on probation for four years.

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