Interior Botches Officials' Passports, Report Finds

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Interior Department's inspector general has found widespread mishandling and erratic tracking of special passports issued to department officials traveling overseas, alleging that in numerous instances employees violated federal privacy laws by improperly securing passports and passport application forms.

In some cases, officials couldn't account for expired passports of former employees, and could not locate a passport once issued to former Interior secretary Gale Norton. The inspector general's report warned that such mismanagement and lax protection could result in cases of fraud or identity theft impacting current and former employees.

"Given the risk of misuse that missing and unsecured passports, visas and passport applications pose, we cannot understate the importance of acting swiftly to address these violations and prevent their recurrence," Acting Inspector General Mary L. Kendall wrote in a memo sent with a copy of the report last week to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The report claims widespread mismanagement of records at the passport offices of the National Business Center (NBC), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). The three offices manage requests for diplomatic and official passports with the State Department, which issues them to government officials traveling overseas.

At Interior, only Salazar carries a diplomatic passport, while an estimated 3,000 employees carry official passports, including employees of BOR, USGS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Office of Insular Affairs, according to the report. These passports convey that the bearers are official government representatives.

Investigators found about 200 files containing applications and expired passports "stacked on unsecured shelves and spilled onto the floor" at NBC's passport office, according to the report, despite assurances that such information would be kept in steel safes with three-way combination locks.

Passport agents appeared to give more security to passports than passport applications, even though the applications contain more sensitive personal information than passports. Agents also admitted that they had kept applications and expired passports on record longer than allowed by federal regulations. Despite their required attendance at annual Privacy Act training courses, most staffers did not know how to properly handle sensitive personal information, investigators concluded.

The report says that agents could not account for at least 49 expired passports of former employees and suggests that many more may also be missing. Employees must surrender their official or diplomatic passports upon leaving the department.

Norton's passport could not be located even though she completed the exit clearances that required the surrender of her diplomatic passport. An NBC employee signed Norton's clearance form indicating that she had returned her passport without actually receiving it, according to the report. Norton, a former member of President George W. Bush's cabinet who is now a general counsel for Royal Dutch Shell, was traveling yesterday and unavailable for comment, according to a company spokesman.

Investigators also discovered that a former Mineral Management Services employee, who pleaded guilty last September to felony charges that he helped arrange contracts that benefited him upon his retirement, had failed to return his passport, as did a former Fish and Wildlife Services employee who resigned in 2006 after two investigations for violations of ethics standards.

The three passport offices have until June 19 to respond to the report's findings. In a statement, Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes said he is reviewing the report and will work with the IG's office to address the findings.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who regularly tracks oversight investigations, called on the department to take immediate action.

"A United States passport is one of the most coveted forms of identification in the world, and passport applications contain information that, if put into the wrong hands, is an invitation for fraud, identity theft and other crimes, which could even have national security risks," he said.

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