The background check contractor that vetted Edward Snowden and faces accusations of bogus billing from the Justice Department has doled out more than a half-million dollars to a powerful Washington lobbying firm in recent months — a strategy that seems to be paying off.
Since Oct. 30, when the Justice Department announced it was intervening in a fraud lawsuit against USIS, the background check company has won more than $200 million in work from federal agencies, according to government procurement data.
USIS used to spend very little money lobbying Congress, but that changed late last year. The company paid more than $500,000 since last fall to the Podesta Group and another $90,000 since last year to lobbying firm McDermott Will & Emery.
“USIS’ new emphasis on lobby expenditures follows the classic pattern of a government contractor trying to find some form of a bailout,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, a watchdog group.
The lobbying can only help USIS as it deals with more unwanted publicity. This month, auditors at the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general division reviewing USIS and two other contractors issued a report questioning how a USIS case reviewer could close more than 15,000 investigative cases in a month — or one every three minutes around the clock, including holidays and weekends.
Although federal contractors routinely spend money trying to influence politicians, analysts say, the experience of USIS is striking because the increased lobbying coincides with increased scrutiny from federal officials and Congress.
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“That’s how things are done in Washington,” said Neil Gordon, an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight who has monitored background check contractor spending.
In February, Mr. Gordon reported that USIS had won more than $142 million in contracts up to that point in the fiscal year, even as federal officials insourced some of the work it previously assigned to contractors. The spending has hardly dropped off, with well over $200 million paid out to USIS so far this fiscal year, records show.
The law says contracts can be awarded only to responsible vendors, but companies sometimes show they are “presently responsible” — a key provision in contracting law — by enacting various reform measures after scandals.
USIS declined to discuss its lobbying expenditures Wednesday, but officials referred to previous statements from the company defending its work and reputation.
The company has said the Justice Department lawsuit stemmed from the actions of “a small group of individuals” and that USIS now has new management in place.
“The alleged conduct referenced in the civil complaint is contrary to our values and commitment to exceptional service. These allegations relate to a small group of individuals over a specific time period and are inconsistent with the strong service record we have earned since our inception in 1996,” USIS spokesman Patrick Scanlan said in a statement to The Washington Times this year.
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The civil lawsuit, which is pending in federal court in Washington, accuses the company of claiming it completed hundreds of thousands of background checks that weren’t finished. Although the outcome remains unclear, the OPM inspector general’s report raised other troubling findings this month.
The inspector general’s report found at least two instances of background check reviewers signing off on cases in an “abnormally short timeframe,” as well as reports that didn’t undergo final review before they were submitted to the Office of Personnel Management.
Auditors also said USIS and another background check contractor, KeyPoint Government Solutions, were unable to show that 29 out of 100 reviewers whom the inspector general reviewed met training requirements, with 24 of the cases involving USIS employees, according to the inspector general’s report.
The report prompted concern Wednesday from one lawmaker, who questioned at an earlier congressional oversight hearing whether USIS — which handles most of the federal background checks — had grown too big to be suspended.
“Several high profile cases have made clear why thorough and accurate background checks are vital to the national security of American citizens and U.S. interests and why reforms are necessary,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat, said in an email.
“OPM should take a serious look at this new IG audit and put in place tighter controls and review requirements to improve this process,” she said.
The same inspector general’s report cited other background check problems and recommended that OPM do more to monitor the work of USIS and two other major background check contractors, CACI and KeyPoint.
In a statement, OPM said officials already removed USIS officials from the OPM contract “as warranted” and added a new audit team to vet background check contractors.
“I remain deeply committed to ensuring the integrity and efficacy of our program and products, which is why OPM has enacted a number of reforms in the months since the cases analyzed in this audit were processed,” OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said in a statement.
She said she has installed a system in which all cases are reviewed by an OPM employee before they are sent to the federal agency that requested the background check.
Meanwhile, individual background checkers are facing scrutiny, too.
In April, Brian Rapier, a former USIS employee, pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington to charges of falsifying work on dozens of background investigations.
He faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced next month. Since 2008, at least 17 background investigators and two records checkers have been found guilty of falsifying records.