- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Despite heightened concerns over holes in the federal government’s system for conducting employee background checks, complaints about investigators filing fraudulent or falsified records have led to 35 cases in fiscal 2013.

The figures from the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general signal that unprecedented scrutiny in the wake of scandals involving Edward Snowden and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, both of whom were approved for clearances, has not stemmed the reports of problems, which some background investigators blame on pressure to complete cases quickly.

The inspector general said it has 65 open and pending fabrication cases. Last year, officials reported a backlog of 36 cases.

Those figures don’t include 21 background investigators and records checkers who have been convicted in cases prosecuted by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in recent years.

The growing body of criminal cases reflects broader concerns about a system that has emphasized speed, paying out big contract bonuses partly for wrapping up cases based on time considerations and warning employees who can’t keep up that their jobs are on the line.

“Tying bonuses to the speed of closing out investigations is a recipe for fraud,” said Phil Becnel, a managing partner of Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group in Washington.

Although clients want speed, he said, there is “a correlation between the time given to complete the investigation and the quality of the work.”

“So when you put a lot of pressure on people to meet ridiculously quick deadlines and then you incentivize them to work faster by paying them bonuses to close cases, you’re tacitly telling investigators that the reliability of the investigation doesn’t matter.”

OPM relies on a combination of its own investigators and contractors to conduct background investigations, then turns over the information to agencies that requested the review. Those agencies make final determinations on security clearances.

Bonuses to compel speedy work by contractors have become controversial. In a recent Justice Department fraud lawsuit against USIS, the private company that conducts many of the federal background checks, government attorneys noted that the company won millions of dollars in bonus payouts partly on the basis of “timeliness.”

It’s not just contractors. One former federal background investigator, Kristen Jasper, who was fired by OPM and charged with criminally falsifying cases, filed an internal OPM memo in her court case written by a supervisor who told her she would face demotion or firing if she didn’t complete cases on time.

“The investigators are under very tight deadlines (especially since 9/11 with the explosion in positions requiring clearances) and have difficulty getting extensions,” a defense attorney for another investigator, Lindsay Branson, wrote in a sentencing memo last year.

Despite numerous congressional hearings and heightened public scrutiny of background checkers, falsification cases continue, officials say.

Susan Ruge, a spokeswoman for the OPM inspector general, said the office is keeping cases open longer now that OPM has established a debarment program.

“Before that program was in place and debarment was an available administrative remedy, we closed cases as soon as the criminal proceedings were concluded,” she said.

“Now, under OPM’s debarment program, we also prepare a debarment referral to submit to OPM and we keep the case file open while we wait for the agency to make a determination on the matter.”

OPM inspector general officials say they are better equipped to handle the dozens of cases after gaining access to up $6.6 million to conduct oversight of OPM’s $2 billion revolving fund, which is used partly to pay for background investigations across government.

Historically, the inspector general’s office has placed a higher priority on investigating federal employees caught falsifying background checks because contractor employees can be suspended immediately, which stops the fraud. Federal employees remain on paid administrative leave until the case is resolved, Ms. Ruge said.

OPM officials did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Wednesday.

USIS officials defended the company’s performance when the Justice Department joined a civil False Claims Act case against the company.

The company says the Justice Department lawsuit was a result of the actions of a “small group of individuals” and that the company has cooperated in the probe and appointed new leadership. The lawsuit did not involve checks into Mr. Snowden or Alexis, but accused USIS of claiming it completed hundreds of thousands of background checks it hadn’t finished.

Company spokesman Patrick Scanlan said in a statement to The Washington Times on Wednesday that USIS criteria for executive bonuses is based on “customer satisfaction and contract performance.”

“USIS investigative staff members are compensated on an hourly basis and receive overtime pay for additional hours worked,” he said. “They are not compensated based on volume.”

In testimony before a House oversight committee in February, USIS chief executive Sterling Philips said background checks were “fixed-price products” and that OPM could send the case back for more work at no charge.

“Both short and long term, it is in the best financial interest of the company to do the job right the first time,” he said.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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