The company that performs many of the federal government’s security background checks received $16 million in incentive awards even as it took shortcuts in hundreds of thousands of its reviews, according to a congressional report released Tuesday.
The report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also said that senior management of USIS, a Falls Church, Va., company that conducts background checks for nearly half of potential U.S. government hires, received a sharp increase in bonuses “when the alleged fraud began.”
The nation’s background security process has been in the spotlight ever since USIS acknowledged it had conducted the background reviews for National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of classified documents that revealed many surveillance programs by U.S. intelligence agencies. The company also performed the background check on government contractor Aaron Alexis, who shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard last fall.
Last month, the Justice Department filed a complaint in a whistleblower’s lawsuit and alleged that USIS did not fully perform background checks in 40 percent of the cases it handled — or 665,000 — during a 41 / 2-year period in an effort to meet performance incentives and reduce backlogs.
An official with ties to the company who was not authorized to speak on its behalf disputed the scale of the alleged misconduct, saying the percentage of potentially fraudulent cases was closer to 10 percent.
The government suit says that USIS managers issued directives to “clear out our shelves in order to hit revenue.”
In testimony before the committee Tuesday, USIS’s chief executive, Sterling Phillips, said the company only performs the background checks and does not have the authority to grant anyone a security clearance.
“We only collect and report information, and we do not even make a recommendation,” said Phillips, who took over as CEO a year ago. The authority to grant clearances “lies solely with the agency requesting the clearance.”
He said that when the company suspects fraud, “we immediately suspend that investigator and launch an investigation.”
The Democratic committee members’ report alleged that USIS hid its fraudulent activities when it was confronted by the Office of Personnel Management.
In April 2011, OPM sent a letter to Robert Calamia, vice president of field operations at USIS, asking him to explain how four investigators could have completed more than 13,000 reports — an average of 3,278 cases per employee — in the span of one week.
Calamia wrote back that the cases were “erroneously submitted” because of a problem with OPM’s systems. He suggested a solution: OPM should give USIS more control over when the work was turned in, a scenario that the report says would have triggered even higher bills from USIS to the government.
At one point, according to the report, USIS had a second contract that allowed it to review the quality of its own background checks — a process that some committee members said represented a clear conflict of interest.
Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in testimony that she issued a directive last week that will allow only federal workers to conduct those quality reviews.
According to the report, 24 USIS executives have resigned, retired or been fired since allegations began surfacing against the company. These leaders include the company’s chief executive and chief financial officer. In addition, the president of the company’s investigations services division resigned “suddenly” last week.
The report said a number of executives received huge payouts for their work at USIS, largely because USIS was “dumping cases”: churning out incomplete background checks to hit targets from the government that would promise more compensation.
After the company was acquired by the private equity firm Providence in 2007, it rolled out new incentive formulas designed to make USIS more efficient. By October 2008, the company said its productivity was at an all-time high and it was cutting down its backlog.
The rewards from OPM were lucrative. Bill Mixon, former president and chief executive, received bonuses and stock worth more than $1 million while the company allegedly committed fraud. At least two other high-level executives were awarded six-figure bonuses.
Archuleta said no bonuses are being awarded under the current company leadership.
A report released by the committee’s majority staff said that law enforcement agencies in more than 450 jurisdictions, including the D.C. police, do not cooperate with investigators doing the background checks.
“Without any enforcement mechanism against local law enforcement agencies that refuse to comply, federal security clearance investigators are unable to obtain pivotal information pertaining to their cases,” the report said. Access to raw police data could have made a difference in the security-clearance review of Alexis, the Navy Yard gunman, the report said. Investigators realized that Alexis had failed to disclose a 2004 arrest in Seattle for malicious mischief, but they did not obtain a copy of a police charging document alleging that the former sailor had used a gun to shoot out the tires of a car because authorities in Seattle generally tell investigators to search the public court records, the report said.
Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.