- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Justice Department said Wednesday it was joining a lawsuit against the firm that conducted the security background checks for Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the data at the heart of the NSA snooping scandal.

In a federal district court filing in Alabama, the department joined Blake Percival, a former employee of United States Investigations Services (USIS), who is claiming that the company “dumped” background investigations of government contractors — such as Mr. Snowden — before they were completed in an effort to maximize profit.

The department further alleged that USIS hid its negligent practices from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and billed the agency for investigations it knew were not complete.

Under provisions of the False Claims Act, private citizens such as Mr. Percival may sue on behalf of the government when they believe false claims for government funds have been submitted. Citizens who file such lawsuits are entitled to recover a portion of the government’s money damages.

After investigating Mr. Percival’s claims, the Justice Department chose to intervene and may seek three times its money damages plus civil penalties. The department has asked the court to give it until January 22 to file its own lawsuit.

“We will not tolerate shortcuts taken by companies that we have entrusted with vetting individuals to be given access to our country’s sensitive and secret information,” said Stuart F. Delery, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

USIS came under scrutiny recently after it surfaced that the Falls Church, Va.-based firm had conducted background checks on Mr. Snowden and Alexis, the federal contractor who went on a violent rampage inside the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12 people last month.

OPM has said it found USIS’s background check on Alexis to be complete, but the agency’s inspector general told Congress this summer that the office is investigating the firm.

“This is a clarion call for accountability,” said Patrick E. McFarland, inspector general of OPM. “As recent events have shown, it is vital for the safety and security of Americans to have these background investigations performed in a thorough and accurate manner.”

Meantime, a federal grand jury reportedly is investigating employee allegations that USIS rammed cases through the system without conducting appropriate reviews. At least eight USIS investigators responsible for conducting background checks have been convicted of falsifying information to advance employment applications, according to news reports.

In May, one former employee, Marcus Travers, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to falsifying information, attributing his actions to “the pressure I felt of completing the case.”

USIS, in a statement provided to The Washington Times, said the behavior by “a small number of employees alleged in the complaint” is “completely inconsistent with our company values, culture and tradition of outstanding service to our government customers.”

USIS has taken these allegations seriously since they were first brought to our attention more than 18 months ago. We have acted decisively to ensure the quality of our work and adherence to OPM requirements, as we continue to perform under our OPM contracts. We have put in place new leadership, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved protocols that have been shared with OPM. We have been cooperating, and will continue to cooperate, with the government’s investigation into these allegations,” the statement said.

Since 1996, USIS has become the largest government contractor to conduct background checks on people seeking employment with federal agencies, with some 6,000 employees who process roughly 45 percent of the checks nationwide, according to federal estimates reported by The Wall Street Journal.

With 90 percent of its business coming from the federal government, the firm has won more than $4 billion in contracts over the past decade from the Pentagon, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, among other agencies, The Journal reported.

According to Mr. Percival’s complaint, the “dumping” began in 2008 and was facilitated by computer software that automatically transmitted incomplete background investigations to OPM in order to meet its own revenue targets. That was one year after USIS conducted a background check of Alexis, who was killed during his shooting spree in September.

In 2011, USIS conducted a security check of Mr. Snowden for a contractor position with the NSA. The Director of National Intelligence has since concluded that the firm failed to conduct a proper background investigation, neglecting to interview enough sources or to examine his extensive international travel.

That same year, the firm was awarded two five-year contracts worth $2.7 billion to conduct background checks for OPM.

In statements to the press prompted by previous allegations, a spokesman for the firm has said, “USIS takes these allegations seriously. Since they were first brought to our attention we have acted decisively to ensure the quality of our work and adherence to OPM requirements.”

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