- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2014

The background check company that vetted Edward Snowden and faces fraud accusations from the Justice Department has refused a congressional request for details about executive bonus payouts and the identities of some former officials.

“The company does not anticipate making a further response,” a lobbyist for USIS wrote in an April 10 email to Democratic staffers on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The previously undisclosed email correspondence, obtained by The Washington Times last week, was in response to requests to USIS by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the oversight committee.

He wanted to know, among other things, how the company awarded bonuses, whether it conducted any internal investigations into fraud accusations and what, if any, actions officials took to claw back six- and seven-figure bonuses to former executives.

Those questions were raised in the wake of a Justice Department civil lawsuit accusing USIS of claiming it completed about 650,000 background investigations that actually remained unfinished, while receiving millions of dollars in performance awards from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The company has addressed some of the issues raised by Mr. Cummings publicly, but not all of the information sought by the congressman has been disclosed. So far, the company has resisted providing answers.

Mr. Cummings’ inquiry was forwarded to USIS in March by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House oversight panel, which held a hearing in February into last year’s Washington Navy Yard shootings. The gunman, Aaron Alexis, was vetted by USIS, which is a part of Virginia-based Altegrity Inc.

Months after requesting information from USIS CEO Sterling Phillips — both at a hearing and in his follow-up letter — Mr. Cummings is increasingly frustrated that his questions remain unanswered.

“The CEO of USIS committed under oath that he would answer questions from the committee, but now his lobbyists say he refuses,” Mr. Cummings told The Washington Times.

“I want to know if the people who were in charge during the fraud scheme are the same people in charge today, and the American people have a right to this information.”

USIS, in an email statement from a company spokesman, said officials have already provided lots of information.

“The company has been very responsive to the [oversight] committee, including engaging in open discussions in person with committee members and staffers, responding to numerous written requests and providing thousands of pages of materials related to our business and the background investigations process,” the company said in the statement.

But the statement failed to indicate why USIS hasn’t responded to the congressional inquiry.

In his letter, Mr. Cummings referred to an earlier exchange he had with Mr. Phillips during the oversight congressional hearing.

He asked the USIS official for the identity of those at Altegrity who approved $1 million in bonuses to former USIS CEO Bill Mixon, who resigned from the company in 2011.

Mr. Phillips said at the hearing that he didn’t know and that he would have to “look at the timing.”

The follow-up written request gave USIS until April 1 to respond. The company remained silent for more than a week until finally its lobbying firm responded, telling staffers for Mr. Cummings that they shouldn’t expect answers any time soon.

“The company has cooperated and been responsive to the committee, DOJ, OPM and others making inquiries,” the response read. It came from McDermott Will & Emery, a lobbying firm that has earned at least $90,000 from the background check company since last year.

After spending little on lobbyists in recent years, USIS also paid out more than $500,000 since last fall to the Podesta Group, headed by prominent lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser Tony Podesta.

The big lobbying push coincided with increasing scrutiny of the company — much of it fueled by the Justice Department complaint against USIS, which is pending in federal court in Washington.

Justice Department lawyers say USIS engaged in a practice called “flushing” or “dumping,” submitting more than 600,000 investigations that weren’t actually finished — enabling the company to get paid nearly $12 million in performance awards from 2008 to 2010.

In a statement issued on the Justice Department complaint, USIS spokesman Patrick Scanlan attributed the “alleged conduct” to a “small group of individuals over a specific time period.” He said the accusations were contrary to “the strong service record we have earned since our inception in 1996.”

The company, however, did not respond last week to recent, unrelated findings by the OPM Inspector General, which issued a report delving into the operations of USIS and two other background check companies.

In the report, auditors found that one USIS case reviewer had closed out more than 15,000 cases in a single month — an astounding rate of about one case roughly every three minutes around the clock.

OPM officials have said they’ve since removed USIS officials from the contract “as warranted” and added auditors to vet background check contractors.

The scrutiny into the government’s background-check processes also has raised broader questions about OPM incentives paid by the government based, in part, on getting cases finished in timely fashion.

In the Justice Department fraud lawsuit, government attorneys noted that the company won millions of dollars in bonus payouts partly on the basis of “timeliness.”

And some background checkers who have been charged criminally for falsifying records checks or interviews have blamed job pressures to get cases completed quickly.

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