Employees of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the agency that oversees background investigations for most of the federal government, return to their building during the lunch hour on June 5. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

For years, investigators charged with vetting the backgrounds of those who handle the nation’s secrets have said they were pressured to churn through cases as quickly as possible. The faster they turned them in, the faster their company got paid — even if the investigations were rushed and incomplete.

The company, USIS, lost the contract to conduct background checks used in granting security clearances after an employee blew the whistle in a lawsuit, eventually joined by the Justice Department. In the wake of a scandal so fierce that members of Congress accused USIS of defrauding the government and prioritizing profit over the nation’s security, federal officials vowed to prevent such abuses from ever happening again.

But a similar quota system used by USIS to drive its investigators continues at the companies that now perform the bulk of the investigations — and in some cases is even more demanding, according to internal company documents and interviews with current and former investigators.

The field workers at KeyPoint Government Solutions and CACI are required to meet pre-determined numbers that dictate how many people they have to interview per day. With their compensation tied to quotas — failure to meet them could lead to a cut in pay — field investigators say the focus on quantity over quality that was so pervasive at USIS persists. And the pressure to meet the goals often doesn’t allow them the freedom to follow important leads to determine who should be granted access to classified material, they say.

Despite the congressional outcry, the contracts’ payment system is still structured so that the faster the contractors turn over the cases to the federal government, the quicker they get paid. And the federal government imposes a financial penalty if the companies miss their deadline.

The constant pressure to move through cases quickly may be coming at a dangerous price, said Carolyn Martin, president of the American Federal Contract Investigators Association, a professional group.

The system is “just producing shoddy investigations,” she said. “They are out there getting the points. Checking the blocks. They are not conducting investigations.”

One investigator, who worked at both USIS and KeyPoint, said he left both companies because of the emphasis on speed over thoroughness.

“It was just too rushed,” the former investigator said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I couldn’t in good conscience continue. I refused to cut corners, and it made me look like I couldn’t perform to their unreasonable expectations.”

In a brief statement, KeyPoint said: “All security clearance investigations are subject to strict internal and external thresholds measuring quality, thoroughness and accuracy. Falsifying any element of a federal security clearance investigation is a felony.”

On its Web site, KeyPoint says that its “commitment to timeliness and quality is unwavering.” And that “because we know the work we do directly contributes to national security, we will never sacrifice quality for speed.”

CACI’s site says that it “fosters a culture based on integrity, strong ethics, quality, and professionalism.” And that its investigators “contribute to the safety and security of our nation in the company of colleagues who value trust and integrity above all else.”

The companies also evaluate their investigators based on the quality of their reports, they say, often sending files back for additional work so that they meet thoroughness standards.

Both KeyPoint and CACI said they were prohibited from responding to multiple requests for comment by the terms of their agreements with the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that oversees background investigations for most of the federal government.

In an interview, Merton Miller, the associate director for OPM’s Federal Investigative Services, defended the investigative system, saying that he “absolutely” had full confidence in it.

There are “very strict quality standards for our field work contractors as well as our feds, so that when they do the work, they do it right,” he said.

Miller said he was aware that the companies use productivity metrics but did not know that they have a tiered system that ties investigators’ compensation to their productivity.

“Candidly, that has not been brought to my attention,” he said.

OPM has recently developed, for the first time, quality-review standards used to judge whether the investigations are complete. That, Miller said, is a marked improvement from the previous system, which left determinations of quality to “the eye of beholder.”

The agency, which said last week that it was the victim of a major cyberattack that included its security clearance database, has also created government-wide standards for training investigators. And last year, the agency, which oversees the investigative process for the Pentagon and the majority of the federal government, stopped awarding separate contracts for quality reviews of its cases, saying it was a conflict of interest.

Still, the companies are facing a daunting challenge. They had to pick up USIS’s massive workload — which averaged 21,000 cases per month — when OPM suddenly did not renew USIS’s contract last fall.

With millions of dollars at stake, CACI and KeyPoint leapt at the chance and went on hiring sprees to show they could handle the additional work. Yet they still had to meet strict congressionally mandated timelines that dictate how quickly clearances have to be granted. OPM has touted the drastic reductions in the time it takes to process initial clearances, from 145 days in 2005 to fewer than 40 last year.

It has been a lucrative business. KeyPoint’s revenue under the contract jumped from $117 million in 2013 to $214 million last year. And it is on pace to receive nearly $240 million this year, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal contracting data. CACI’s revenue also spiked, growing from $47.5 million in 2013 to more than $93 million last year. This year it is on pace to hit more than $175 million.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been critical of the pressure placed on investigators, said the government “has long struggled to balance workload and quality.”

“The issue has not gone away,” he said in a statement to The Post, “and is just as apparent as OPM tries to make do after removing their largest contractor from the investigation process last year. . . . We have too many examples of background investigators and their supervisors taking shortcuts to meet deadlines.”

‘I have to pay my bills’

The pressure to move through cases quickly can lead to shortcuts, investigators said.

Another former KeyPoint investigator, who now works at CACI, said that while he tried not to cut corners, the pressure from his bosses sometimes forced him into uncomfortable territory. In one instance while he was at KeyPoint, he was investigating a foreign national who had marked on his paperwork that he had not maintained contact with anyone from his home country.

The investigator was skeptical of this: “You’re telling me that a kid who’s been in a foreign country for five months and he doesn’t talk to anyone in [his home] country? I find that hard to believe. He didn’t have any friends there or anything?”

And so the investigator asked about it in the interview.

“I said, ‘Are you sure?’ ”

The interviewee said he was.

“I just moved on to the next question because I was in a hurry,” said the investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I have to pay my bills, and clearly my company doesn’t care. They want me to do it faster.”

It’s not just the numbers system but also the demands to meet deadlines, investigators said.

As a contract investigator for KeyPoint, Mary Cullings is paid by the leads she tracks down. Interviewing a reference listed by a security clearance applicant could yield $50, she said, as long as she makes her deadline. If she misses it, her pay is docked by as much as $15, she said.

There have been many times when she’s been unable to track down the reference, only to have the person call right before her deadline. When that happens, Cullings blows her deadline, accepts the financial penalty and meets with the reference because “in all good conscience, I can’t write that off.”

But others could say they made the required efforts to interview the source but were unable to, and then they would still get paid the full amount.

“That happens all the time,” said Cullings, a former special agent with the federal Defense Security Service who now contracts with several companies as an investigator. “What they are interested in is the bottom line.”

An anonymous message board on ClearanceJobs.com, a placement firm for cleared workers, is full of posts by investigators complaining about the demands of their work.

“I worked for USIS for over 10 years and switched over to KGS and it’s the same crap different day! KGS is so number driven it’s sick!” read one post from last year. “Who cares about how complicated and long the case is it’s all about your numbers.”

Investigators say they should be granted the freedom to follow leads without worrying about meeting a quota.

“Each investigation is different. Each subject is different,” one investigator said. “Then you go to your manager and say you need more time, and there’s no flexibility. . . . There’s too much of a conflict between the integrity of the process and the bottom line of these companies.”

The consequences of this kind of system could be dire, said Greg Rinckey, the founding partner at Tully Rinckey, a Washington law firm that represents people with security clearances.

“We’re not processing widgets here; we’re talking about the people who are going to have access to our nation’s secrets,” he said. “This isn’t a numbers game. We’re dealing with national security.”

Clear financial incentives

USIS, which performed the background checks on Edward Snowden, who leaked some of the NSA’s secrets, and Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, lost the contract after Blake Percival, a former field work services director, filed a whistleblower lawsuit. In it, he alleged that the company had submitted 665,000 cases that were incomplete, saying it was interested in clearing “out the shelves in order to hit revenue.”

While it had the OPM contract, USIS used a mathematical formula used to rate the productivity of its investigators. An interview with the subject of a clearance was worth four points; a neighbor or co-worker was worth one; and a document, such as a police report, was worth half a point.

The company’s quota system ranged from 17.5 points a week to 25 a week, depending on the pay grade; the higher investigators scored, the more they got paid, according to investigators and internal documents obtained by The Washington Post.

KeyPoint uses a six-level program for its investigators that can be even more demanding, according to company documents. CACI uses a three-level system that also ties productivity to compensation, according to three investigators.

At KeyPoint, company officials make it clear that the faster workers process cases, the more they are rewarded. Those who perform at a higher level for six months “are eligible to be promoted to that level,” the company says on its Web site, which also says: “High performers can earn generous bonuses.”

OPM’s investigators, by contrast, are measured in “man hours,” not by the number of people they interview per day, said Miller, the OPM associate director. The agency has studied how long each kind of case should take on average and measures workers’ performance accordingly.

The agency has been pushing its contractors to adopt the man-hour approach over their current point system, he said, so that it can directly compare the federal investigators’ output to the contractors’. OPM is also aware “that some cases take much longer,” he said, and investigators are “required” to exhaust all leads.

Hitting tight deadlines and the high-level quotas set by the companies can be difficult, if not impossible, industry officials say. The overwhelming majority of the interviews have to be done in person. Neighbors and co-workers can be difficult to locate, reluctant to talk and sometimes don’t show for an appointment, costing investigators crucial time in a race to meet their targets in a 40-hour workweek.

To meet their quota, investigators say they often have to work overtime, sometimes off the clock, working for free rather than face getting demoted to a lower level and a pay cut. But working off the books is prohibited under federal contracts. And KeyPoint executives recently sent an e-mail that was obtained by The Post to its employees, saying that “failing to record all time worked is timecard fraud.”

Employees who worked overtime without previously recording it should come forward and they will be paid, the e-mail said.

But it also warned that any employees putting in for the extra pay would also face consequences: “Their employment will be terminated immediately.”

Alice Crites, Jennifer Jenkins and Steven Rich contributed to this report.