WASHINGTON — Federal investigators have opened multiple inquiries into California census operations, including allegations that some workers felt so much pressure that they cut corners or got things wrong during the crucial population count.
The investigation isn't unique. Last month, investigators revealed that two Brooklyn census supervisors had directed workers to falsify answers to household questionnaires. The Brooklyn case arose from whistleblower complaints, much as the California investigations did.
Both cases underscore the potential for problems in trying to count 309 million U.S. residents.
"I think it is important to stress that events of this nature occur in every census in spite of our best efforts," Census Bureau Director Robert Groves told a House of Representatives panel last month.
Todd Zinser, the Commerce Department inspector general, noted that more than 100 of his investigators have fanned out to census offices in every state. He said investigators were trying to determine whether the kind of data falsification found in New York "could be more widespread."
The California investigations aren't yet complete, but the whistleblowers who filed the complaints charge that the problems boiled down to management's demands.
"The goals had everything to do with speed, and nothing to do with accuracy," said Craig Baltz, a former worker in one of the Census Bureau's two Fresno, Calif. offices. "Instead of slowing down to ensure accurate data, we sped up."
Baltz charged that in some difficult-to-reach areas, "enumerators had two choices: Turn in accurate work and get written up or terminated, or falsify data and keep working." Baltz worked for the census from last October till July.
In one case, a former census worker allegedly tallied residents of a migrant farm workers' camp in California's San Joaquin Valley, but the camp itself was empty, abandoned because of the region's shortage of irrigation water
Another former California census worker, Dan Gibson, voiced fears that "the quality of the work suffered greatly" under relentless management pressure, though he said individual field staff members were "incredible" and "highly honorable." Gibson supervised field operations in the Salinas census office until he was fired last March.
"These people were very loyal, very committed," Gibson said of the field staff, while adding that accuracy became more difficult under regional management he described as "a reign of terror." The Salinas and Fresno offices were overseen by the Los Angeles regional office, the focus of complaints of ex-workers' complaints.
The Commerce Department's Office of Inspector General is reviewing the California allegations, along with charges of sex, race and age discrimination. At least nine former workers in California, including Gibson, filed separate complaints with the watchdog agency, ex-workers say.
"These allegations of falsification of the census by census workers are troubling, because one of the oldest responsibilities of the federal government is to conduct a census," said Andrew House, a spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
Nunes' office confirmed that the investigations are taking place.
"There was abuse of authority and mismanagement," charged Nell Taylan, a veteran human relations specialist who worked in the Salinas office. "I've never seen anything like it."
Census Bureau officials say they've done everything possible to ensure an accurate population tabulation. Asked specifically about alleged problems in California, a spokesman referred to comments July 27 by Groves in which he stressed the agency's nationwide quality-control efforts, which include double-checking answers from a sampling of households.
Groves said that suspicious errors that could mean falsification of data were made by "less than a thousand" of the 565,000 field interviewers nationwide.
"This is, by the way, below what we expected," Groves said.
Aricelo Barcelo, who oversaw the Fresno and Salinas offices from Los Angeles, said in a previous interview, "We never discriminated against anyone based on race, gender or language" and that "we always follow the rules by the book."
The census work is both crucial and complicated.
By command of the Constitution, a national head count occurs every 10 years. The result determines how many congressional seats each state receives and it helps guide the distribution of some $400 billion in federal funds annually.
Enumerators count every U.S. resident. In addition, the residents of roughly 47 million U.S. households must answer a more detailed questionnaire.
The enumerators face numerous challenges including language barriers, hard-to-reach neighborhoods and occasional public suspicion about the questions being asked. They also face a series of deadlines, which several California workers charge were tightened unnecessarily.
"There were field people who felt the pressure to meet deadlines, even when it was counterproductive," Taylan said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY