Audit details problems with federal background-checks

Questionable work, poor oversight and lack of training have weakened background checks for federal employees and contractors, according to a recent report from the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general.

Federal auditors determined that OPM, which oversees U.S. government background checks, must strengthen its controls over the firms that conduct screenings.

Concerns about federal background checks increased last year after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked sensitive information about the government’s electronic surveillance programs and Navy contractor Aaron Alexis killed 12 people in the Washington Navy Yard shooting.


A police officer during the Washington Navy Yard shooting rampage in September. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The Pentagon determined that the government missed opportunities to restrict Alexis’s access to military installations, despite warning signs that he was mentally unstable.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in January saying that the support-services firm USIS, which handled most of the government’s background checks, filed more than 660,000 cases without properly reviewing them.

Lawmakers have criticized OPM for allowing its contractors to review their own screenings.

In a statement on Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who heads the Senate Financial and Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, described improper background checks as “nothing short of a threat to our national security.” She said the government needs to tighten its controls over the system.

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said in a statement Thursday: “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 announced in February that it would no longer allow contractors to review the quality of their own background checks and that it would rely on its own employees to do the work.

The agency has also said it established a new internal team to audit contractors’ performance, in addition to increasing the number of inspections it performs and implementing an automated tracking tool to ensure that reviewers meet investigative standards before closing cases.

The inspector general’s analysis looked at the processes OPM and its contractors used for reviewing background checks and laid out recommendations for improving the system. The firms included USIS, CACI International and KeyPoint Governmental Solutions.

USIS declined to comment on the audit Thursday. The other two firms have not responded to requests for remarks.

Below are some highlights from the report, which was released June 4.  (See the full document at the bottom of this article, or click here if you have trouble viewing it). 

USIS claimed to be working impossibly fast

The report said at least two USIS employees completed an “abnormally high number” of reviews in a short time frame, noting that one worker finished more than 15,000 reviews in a month, with many occurring within minutes of each other.

The inspector general found that OPM was aware of abnormal reviews from one of the USIS employees and that the agency took administrative action against that person.

Weak controls

Auditors found some cases in which background checks were not reviewed at all, saying that “it is clear to us that the contractors are not conducting a pre-review of all investigative items as required by the OPM contract.”

The report noted problems with the processing system that allowed cases to move forward without proper reviews. For instance, the system would indicate that a background investigation had been checked for quality simply because an employee had logged on to research it.

Auditors recommended that OPM require its contractors to mark cases specifically as “review complete” to signal that a review actually occurred.

Training issues

USIS was unable to document that it properly trained about half of its reviewers who were audited, and KeyPoint had no formal record of training any of its case handlers.

OPM said its future contracts will require background-check firms to provide documentation of their training records within one day of a request for the materials.

The agency also said it would ask the firms to reevaluate their internal controls to show that reviewers have completed mandatory training.

 

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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