Top General Services Administration officials learned of a troubling discovery by the agency’s watchdog office back in December: a GSA executive responsible for intelligence agency customers had gone to China a year earlier without telling anyone.
The official not only held a top-secret compartmented information clearance that required him to report the trip, he failed to disclose decades-old felony arrests or report multiple contacts with foreign nationals, according to a Dec. 6, 2013, memo from the GSA Office of Inspector General to the agency’s top acquisition and human resources officials.
There was more: The GSA employee misused a government travel card, made false statements on ethics and national security forms and failed to disclose an airplane he owned as an asset in a 2008 bankruptcy case, among other serious misconduct findings.
The investigation ended quietly without criminal charges late last year when the Justice Department declined to prosecute, according to the memo, which The Washington Times obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. While the document was redacted to withhold the name of the official, The Times has confirmed he is Norman Wear, a GSA employee since the 1980s who earned $136,000 in fiscal 2013 working in the agency’s Office of Customer Accounts and Research — the point of contact for other federal agencies that use GSA contracts. Mr. Wear was the point man for U.S. intelligence agencies.
At a time when the government’s security clearance process is under intense scrutiny, the GSA case raises questions about the federal background-check system as well as discipline at the GSA, where officials pledged a zero-tolerance policy in the wake of embarrassing spending scandals that forced out top officials in 2012.
“I don’t know how anybody can remain as a federal employee after all of this,” said Chad Jenkins, a former FBI agent and counterintelligence expert who reviewed the 14-page memo at the request of the Times. “At a minimum, what it does shed light on is the loopholes that are in the background-check system right now.”
For his part, Mr. Wear portrayed himself as the target of an overzealous inspector general. In phone interviews he referred to the investigation as the “Spanish Inquisition,” acknowledging making errors using an agency travel card. But he said other findings could be explained, and his trip to China didn’t involve anything nefarious. He said he went on a routine trade mission involving Virginia state officials while he was on leave. And he said he’d previously disclosed the arrests.
They went on a witch hunt,” he said of the investigation. “They went through a lot of stuff that had already been adjudicated before.”
“There is no criminal investigation going on and no charges or anything like that,” he added.
Agency officials declined to say if they knew about the arrests or whether the charges — filed and dismissed against Mr. Wear in the late 1970s and early 1980s — would have affected his clearance. But Mr. Jenkins said any run-in with law enforcement should be reported, and the lack of disclosure alone can result in a revoked clearance.
GSA officials also declined to discuss what, if any, discipline Mr. Wear faced. The agency’s administrator, Dan Tangherlini, has made no secret about his intolerance for any workplace misconduct in the past.
In the wake of a scandal involving a lavish Las Vegas conference that forced out the previous administrator, he told lawmakers in 2012 that “GSA should be held to a higher standard.”
Agents who examined Mr. Wear’s SF86 form, a questionnaire for national security positions that he filled out in 2009, found that he reported no felony arrests.
But in its December memo the inspector general’s office said Mr. Wear knew that was false, citing records in Tennessee showing a “breach of trust” arrest in 1979 and another 1981 arrest in Delaware on embezzlement charges.
Neither case resulted in convictions and charges were dismissed, but the felony charges were still required to be reported by those applying for clearance.
Mr. Wear characterized both cases as bogus. He said one charge happened when he was a salesman and had a company car while serving in the Air Force Reserve. While flying on a mission, he said the boss wanted the car back, but he couldn’t do anything about it because he was in Saudi Arabia. The company later filed charges, but Mr. Wear said the judge dismissed the case after learning he was serving in the military.
He said the other arrest came while he ran a radio equipment repair business back in the late 1970s. He sent a police officer’s radio to a factory for repair. He said the factory didn’t return it for months, and the police office got impatient, eventually filing charges against him. He said that case was dropped too.
Mr. Wear said he reported the arrests on earlier disclosure forms.
Trip to China
Decades after those arrests, Mr. Wear came to the attention of authorities after they received a tip from a law enforcement source that he’d taken a trip to China in September 2012 but failed to report either the trip or contacts he made with foreigners.
As a holder of one of the government’s most sensitive security clearances, Mr. Wear was supposed to report not only the trip but also to receive a briefing ahead of time and to report any security incidents after his return.
Mr. Wear didn’t inform the GSA’s security office he was going to China, though he used a GSA travel card to pay United Airlines about $1,500 to buy a plane ticket, according to records.
While in China, the investigators say, he had repeated contacts with an unnamed Chinese citizen. The IG memo also says he brought his government-issued cellphone, and he told them afterwards that he “assumed” Chinese “technology spies” pulled all the data from the phone, including his contacts working for U.S. intelligence agencies.
In their investigation, IG officials found other contacts with foreign nationals that went unreported by Mr. Wear — visits “once or twice since 2009” to the Chinese embassy, and another visit to the Malaysian embassy, where he met the ambassador, records show. He also failed to report accepting travel and food gifts from the Chinese government during his 2012 trip, investigators said.
Mr. Wear told The Times there’s nothing sinister afoot, saying he’d been invited to social gatherings at embassies and that he has friends from other countries.
As for the China trip, he said he was part of a trade mission involving a delegation of Virginia officials, including some from the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell.
He acknowledged to The Times that he did occasionally leave the phone behind in his hotel during the trip but said he didn’t know for certain whether spies had lifted data from his phone. He said he mentioned it to investigators in the broad sense that “anything is possible.” And he denied leaving the phone unprotected without a password.
The inspector general’s office declined to comment on its investigation.
In its investigation the IG found other potential violations, including false certifications on a government ethics form and failure to disclose assets in Mr. Wear’s 2008 bankruptcy case in Virginia.
Investigators said he’d used his role with a GSA employees association to get about $2,000 in FedEx discounts while purchasing radio equipment from a contractor at a $695 discount.
Mr. Wear said the GSA’s employees association is a separate entity from the agency and that any member could have gotten the same discount. He said he didn’t get any price breaks on radio equipment because of his work with the government.
While Mr. Wear initially told investigators he’d disclosed all of his assets in his 2008 bankruptcy, he subsequently said he wasn’t sure if he told his attorney about an airplane he’d owned since 2002, according to the case memo.
Concealing assets in a bankruptcy case is a federal crime that carries up to five years in prison. The statute of limitations is five years, and Mr. Wear’s case ended in the fall of 2008.
Mr. Wear told The Times that he never intended to conceal any assets, blaming the “automated process” by which his assets and holdings were tallied prior to filing for bankruptcy.
In the end investigators sent all of their findings — citing 13 applicable federal laws and rules — to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
But prosecutors declined to seek criminal charges. A spokeswoman for the office would not comment on the case, nor on whether Mr. Wear was ever even under investigation.
Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism expert, questioned why prosecutors didn’t pursue the bankruptcy further, calling it a “slam dunk” case. And he wondered whether there was more to the investigation.
“I just don’t think they’d say this is nothing, let’s do something else,” Mr. Clemente said. “There are too many red flags.”
A GSA spokesman confirmed that Mr. Wear remains employed by the agency, although Mr. Wear said he’s been transferred to a position in strategic planning. Mr. Wear said he’s no longer in a security-cleared position — his clearance having been suspended but not revoked.
“While Mr. Wear remains an employee of the General Services Administration, the agency takes the issues in the inspector general’s report very seriously,” GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said earlier this month.
“Following a thorough review of the report and related documents, we consulted with the Office of the Inspector General, and we took appropriate action.”