The State Department official in charge of U.S. passport services stepped down yesterday amid investigations into security breaches in the document records and overcharges for blank passports.
In the latest blow against the agency, court documents show a State Department employee provided personal information from passport applications for use in a credit-card fraud scheme.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Ann Barrett left her post yesterday, a move that State Department Spokesman Tom Casey attributed to management changes.
The personnel move comes after The Washington Times first reported last month that three State Department contract employees were being investigated for improperly accessing the passport data of three presidential candidates. The Times also has reported on overcharges for blank passports produced by the U.S. Government Printing Office.
Asked whether the move of Ms. Barrett is linked to the improper file searches and other reports, Mr. Casey said: “I wouldn’t ascribe it to any individual incident.”
“There are management changes that go on in this bureau and consular affairs and others all the time,” he said but declined to elaborate.
Meanwhile, a State Department employee who was not identified in documents filed in U.S. District Court, was implicated in a credit-card fraud scheme after 24-year-old Leiutenant Quarles Harris Jr. told federal authorities he obtained “passport information from a co-conspirator who works for the U.S. Department of State.”
The investigation began after Metropolitan Police on March 25 pulled over Mr. Harris in Southeast on suspicion that the windows of his vehicle were tinted too darkly.
After searching Mr. Harris and his vehicle, police found marijuana and 21 credit cards that were not issued in his name or the name of a female passenger with him. Police also found eight printouts of State Department passport applications, and four of the names on the applications matched four of the credit cards.
Upon questioning by agents from the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Postal Service and State Department, Mr. Harris “admitted he obtained the passport information” from a State Department employee, court documents say.
Mr. Harris also said the fraud ring submitted credit-card applications using the names and “identifying information” of the persons listed on the passport applications, and that a postal service employee then would intercept the cards before they were delivered to the appropriate residences.
Passport application data includes details such as a person’s date and place of birth, e-mail address, mailing address, Social Security number, former names and travel plans.
Mr. Harris, of Capitol Heights was initially arrested for possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and has since been charged by complaint in U.S. District Court in the District with credit-card fraud.
He was released on his own recognizance, under the condition that he not apply for or possess any passports.
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District, said he could not comment on the case because it is a “pending matter.”
The federal public defender representing Mr. Harris could not be reached for comment. A preliminary hearing in the case was scheduled for April 14.
Mr. Harris also is facing charges of credit-card fraud in Maryland from a September incident at a Nordstrom department store in Annapolis Mall. District court records show that Mr. Harris purchased 10 Nordstrom gift cards worth $1,000 each on Sept. 25 with a credit card that did not belong to him.
One State Department official said an investigation into the credit-card fraud case is being handled by the department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
Asked whether there is a link between Ms. Barrett’s demotion and the credit-card fraud case, Mr. Casey said there is “no specific connection to any ongoing investigations.”
However, a State Department official said later that Ms. Barrett’s demotion to another position in the consular affairs bureau followed a review of management practices in the office by Patrick F. Kennedy, the undersecretary of state for management.
Neither Mr. Kennedy nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were informed that two contractors had been fired and a third was under investigation for improperly looking at passport files of Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain. The two senior officials became aware of the problem after inquiries were made by The Times.
Another official said Ms. Barrett, a career civilian employee, will be replaced by Lawrence Baer, who also works in the consular affairs bureau. On Wednesday, the White House announced that President Bush has nominated Janice L. Jacobs, to be the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.
The management review found problems with the way Ms. Barrett’s office handled the high demand for new passports last summer, when long delays for passports disrupted travelers who faced a new legal requirement to show passports upon returning to the country from Canada, Mexico and the Carribean.
Ms. Barrett, a career civilan employee, was blamed by officials for the passport backlog during summer 2007 for not anticipating the increased demand for passports.
A passport application processed by the State Department includes personal information such as:
Social Security number
Date and place of birth
Hair and Eye Color
Source: U.S. Department of State
THE WASHINGTON TIMES