The Justice Department said on Wednesday that it has joined an ex-employee’s fraud suit against the same contractor that performed background checks on NSA leaker Edward Snowden and on Aaron Alexis, the gunman who killed 12 people at Washington’s Navy Yard on Sept. 16th.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Alabama by a former employee, alleges that the United States Investigations Service, LLC failed to perform quality control reviews in determining whether information gathering on the backgrounds of other applicants – not Snowden or Alexis -- was sufficiently thorough.
In numerous instances beginning in 2008, it alleges, the company sought to maximize profits by engaging in a practice called “dumping,” in which incomplete reviews were forwarded to the Office of Personnel Management for decisions on clearances.
USIS, based in Falls Church, Va., easily leads the industry, saying that its 6,500 employees conducted 700,000investigations for federal agencies in 2012, most of them presumably into the backgrounds of applicants for sensitive federal jobs.
OPM hasn’t pointed to any deficiencies in the files that the company submitted after separately examining Snowden’s and Alexis’ pasts, and stated that Alexis’ 2007 review was “complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.” But the fact that both men got clearances has set off multiple investigations and calls for an overhaul of the process.
“We will not tolerate shortcuts taken by companies that we have entrusted with vetting individuals to be given access to our country’s sensitive and secret information,” said Stuart Delery, chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, who signed off on the suit.
Snowden, a fugitive who’s being harbored by the Russian government, was a contract employee for the National Security Agency before leaking thousands of documents disclosing the breadth of the agency’s spying, both in the United States and abroad.
Alexis, a mentally troubled military veteran, had reported hearing voices in the weeks before walking into a building Sept. 16th at the Navy Yard and killing a dozen people with a shotgun. Law enforcement officers shot him to death.
Brandy Bergman, a spokeswoman for the company, said that upon learning of the allegations from ex-employee Blake Percival early last year, it “acted decisively to ensure the quality of our work.”
“The behavior by a small number of employees alleged in the complaint is completely inconsistent with our company values, culture and tradition of outstanding service to our government customers,” she said. "We have put in place new leadership, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved protocols that have been shared with OPM. We have been cooperating, and will continue to cooperate, with the government’s investigation into these allegations.”
A person familiar with the case, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. Said that the company terminated all the employees implicated in wrongdoing and replaced 11 of 13 senior managers.
Percival filed the suit under the federal False Claims Act, which permits private individuals to sue if they believe that false claims have been submitted for government payments, in which case they can recover a portion of any damage award.
The law requires the government to secretly investigate the claims in such suits and if it finds merit, to add heft to the case by intervening. The government can recover up to triple its damages plus civil penalties.
OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland called the Justice Department’s action “a clarion call for accountability” that “is vital for the safety and security of Americans.”
George Beck Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, said that besides damage caused by Snowden and Alexis, “the increase in foreign and domestic terrorism places an increased responsibility on our government to ensure individuals are prohibited from government employment.”