Senate bill blocks background-check firms from reviewing own work

Friday - 2/28/2014, 11:32am EST

A new bill introduced in the Senate would prevent contractors who conduct background investigations for the government from reviewing and approving their own work.

The Preventing Conflicts of Interest with Contractors Act would block the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the background check process, from contracting with companies to perform final quality reviews if those same companies are also responsible for conducting initial investigations.

"Letting federal contractors review their own work is like letting the fox guard the henhouse," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the sponsor of the bill and the chairman of a Senate subcommittee with oversight of the federal workforce, in a statement. "This common-sense bill will put national security ahead of profits, hold federal contractors more accountable and make our nation safer."

Last fall, the Justice Department joined an employee's whistleblower lawsuit, alleging that USIS, the government's largest private provider of background checks, improperly signed off on hundreds of thousands of investigations that had never been properly vetted — a practice the company referred to as "dumping" or "flushing" records, according to the suit.

USIS also performed background investigations of both National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, although DOJ's complaint is not related to either of those investigations. The company has maintained the alleged dumping of cases is contrary to the company values and has put in place a new leadership team and increased oversight.

Earlier OPM decision could be overturned

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta announced in early February that, going forward, only federal employees would conduct final quality reviews.

At the time, about 50 USIS employees performed final quality reviews under a $288 million support-services contract with the agency even though the company also holds a $2.46 billion contract with OPM to conduct the initial fieldwork on those investigations. OPM officials alleged that the company "misused" the first contract "to obtain information about OPM's oversight efforts and evade detection of its alleged fraudulent activities for more than four years," according to a report published earlier this month by Democratic members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Tester's bill, which has been co-sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), writes Archuleta's decision into law. Otherwise it could be reversed by a future OPM director.

"It's good news that the administration has taken swift action to strengthen accountability in the past several months, but we have to do more," McCaskill said in a statement. "This legislation will further boost accountability and remove conflicts of interest by ensuring the same contractor won't be able to both conduct background checks, and conduct a final review of that same background check process."

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed into law the OPM Inspector General Act, another bill aiming to shore up gaps in the security-clearance process. The bill, versions of which had been introduced in both the House and Senate, allows OPM's IG to access additional funding to conduct audits and investigations.

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