DOJ joins whistleblower suit against company that vetted Snowden, Alexis

Wednesday - 10/30/2013, 4:21pm EDT

The Justice Department has joined a whistleblower False Claims Act suit against the federal government's largest provider of background investigations.

The original suit was filed under the False Claims Act by Blake Percival, a former employee of United States Investigation Services (USIS). It alleges that the company, which currently has a multimillion-dollar contract with the Office of Personnel Management, failed to properly review its casework before providing it to OPM.

According to the suit, USIS began "dumping" cases in 2008 — using a software program to automatically release background investigations to OPM as if they were completed when, in fact, the cases had not been fully reviewed.

USIS has been under scrutiny since June when it was first revealed the company performed the background check of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Later, in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting last month, the company acknowledged it had also performed a 2007 background check of the gunman, Navy contractor employee Aaron Alexis.

OPM — and its contractors — performs 90 percent of the federal government's background investigations, which is the first step in obtaining security clearances. About 4.9 million government employees and contractors currently hold clearances.

Under a contract inked with OPM in 2006, the company was required to conduct background investigations and to ensure each case underwent a full review by trained staff before being passed off to OPM.

USIS allegedly began "dumping" cases in part to maximize its profits and improperly billed the government for the incomplete reviews, according to the suit.

OPM IG investigating USIS for months

OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland first drew attention to what he called "alarmingly insufficient oversight" of the security clearance process at a Senate subcommittee hearing in June. It was at that hearing that McFarland revealed USIS was under criminal investigation by his office for failing to adequately conduct investigations under the terms of its contract with OPM.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said the company has been cooperating with the government's investigation since it first learned of the allegations more than 18 months ago.

"We have acted decisively to ensure the quality of our work and adherence to OPM requirements, as we continue to perform under our OPM contracts," the statement read in part. "We have put in place new leadership, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved protocols that have been shared with OPM."

Despite the furor last month following the Navy Yard shooting, OPM defended the background investigation of Alexis, a Navy IT contractor, saying it fully complied with federal investigative standards.

In a statement Wednesday, acting OPM Director Elaine Kaplan said the agency doesn't tolerate fraud or falsification and is working "hand in hand" with both its IG's office and DOJ.

The government's investigations have also led to a push for a legislative overhaul of the security-clearance process. Earlier this month, the Senate approved a measure providing the OPM IG more funding to conduct investigations.

On Wednesday, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced a separate bill that would require OPM to conduct automatic, random reviews of existing clearances using public-records databases.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, McCaskill said DOJ should also consider criminal charges against any USIS employees who knowingly broke the law.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is set to examine the security-clearance process during a hearing Thursday.

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