By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Half a dozen investigators conducting security-clearance checks for the federal government have been accused of lying in the reports they submitted to the Office of Personnel Management, which handles about 90 percent of the background inquiries for more than 100 agencies.
Federal authorities said they do not think that anyone who did not deserve a job or security clearance received one or that investigators intentionally helped people slip through the screening. Instead, law enforcement officials said, the investigators lied about interviews they never conducted because they were overworked, cutting corners, trying to impress their bosses or, in the case of one contractor, seeking to earn more money by racing through the checks.
But outside experts said they were concerned about the false reports, given the increasing number of sensitive positions requiring such checks and the pressure to process applications for hundreds of incoming Obama administration officials.
"I am astonished by this," said Kenneth M. Mead, a former inspector general for the Department of Transportation, who called for an audit. "It never occurred to me that investigations would be falsified. I can't tell you how automatic my reliance was on these reports. If someone were to slip through the net and get a clearance, it could be costly to the government."
Since 2007, federal prosecutors have charged six investigators -- in Connecticut, Maryland and the District -- with making false statements. More could be charged, law enforcement sources said. Three of the investigators were OPM employees; the others were contractors for private companies, including U.S. Investigation Services and Kroll, according to court records. Representatives of both companies said the firms have taken steps to prevent such problems in the future.
Five investigators have pleaded guilty; one was convicted last year after a week-long trial in federal court in the District. Most have received probation. Two await sentencing.
In court papers, prosecutors say the workers lied about having interviewed the friends, co-workers or former professors of applicants seeking government jobs requiring security clearances at Treasury, Defense and other agencies.
One investigator admitted he lied in 30 of 67 background investigations. Another said he lied in a dozen. Sometimes investigators conducted cursory interviews of just a few minutes, too truncated to gather meaningful information about applicants' potential drug use, associations, foreign travel and loyalty.
"This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellen Chubin Epstein said during the February sentencing of an investigator, the same day two others pleaded guilty in the same District federal courthouse. In court papers in another case, Epstein wrote that such lax investigations "can pose a serious risk to national security."
OPM's 1,540 staff investigators and 5,300 contractors conducted more than 2 million background checks last year. More than 825,000 of those involved applicants seeking access to classified information, OPM officials say. The investigations, which often require record checks, can cost thousands of dollars and take more than 50 hours. After completing an investigation, OPM forwards the report to the requesting agency, which decides whether to hire the applicants or give them security clearances.
Kathy L. Dillaman, associate director of OPM's federal investigative services division, said the agency handled such problems internally in the past. But officials grew concerned that the number of such infractions was rising with the agency's workload. The number of background checks conducted by OPM has risen about 22 percent since 2006. Dillaman said officials decided to send a stronger message by prosecuting offenders.
"Candidly, taking administrative action and firing an individual wasn't stopping or stalling this from happening," she said.
Dillaman said the agency discovered the false reports after mailing questionnaires to about 20 percent of those whom investigators said they had interviewed. The Government Accountability Office also has raised questions about the thoroughness of OPM's reports. In December, GAO reported that nearly 90 percent of a sampling of reports sent to the Defense Department were missing at least one type of required document.
Dillaman said OPM was continually struggling to deliver background reports quickly, but at the same time to conduct comprehensive assessments of applicants.
Outside experts cited the prosecution of George Abraham, an investigator who worked for several firms hired by OPM, as an example of potential problems in the agency's contracting practices. Abraham was compensated by the case and raced through investigations to get more work, authorities said.
His motive, Epstein wrote in court papers, "was simply greed."
In several instances, Epstein wrote, Abraham interviewed people for just a few minutes and reported that they had recommended applicants for sensitive jobs. Those interviews either did not happen or were so rushed that they were meaningless, Epstein said.
In one case, Abraham reported that a co-worker said a potential Air Force special agent "likes to have cookouts and watch NASCAR races" and is very security-conscious. But, prosecutors said, that interview never happened. Abraham was convicted of six counts of making false statements and was sentenced to two years and three months in prison.