Up in Arms

Published — September 22, 2014 Updated — Today at 1:28 pm EST

U.S. Senate passes bill curtailing conflicts of interest in security clearance contracts

Firms no longer would be allowed to rate their own work

Introduction

Private companies typically don’t fill out their own customer satisfaction surveys, and teachers are not generally allowed to pen their own evaluations. But the federal government sometimes pays contractors to perform quality checks on their own work, with predictably abusive consequences.

The most notorious, recent case involved a firm called U.S. Investigations Services, Inc., a Falls Church, VA-based company that was hired by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to investigate the backgrounds of current or prospective federal employees who needed security clearances — as well as to perform a quality review of each background investigation before submitting it.

Instead, the contractor cut corners, and passed along thousands of background investigations to federal authorities without actually conducting the required quality reviews, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

On Sept. 19, however, half the Congress voted unanimously to prevent federal contractors that process security clearances from conducting quality reviews of their own work. The bill does not have a sponsor in the House of Representatives, but Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the principal Senate author, said via a spokesperson that he is working to find one.

“We have been playing fast and loose with the background investigation process, and it’s past time to make wholesale reforms,” Tester said in prepared statement. “This bill is a step in the right direction, and I’m pleased it’s moving forward.”

The Obama administration says it supports the reform. “We applaud Senator Tester and the other members of the Committee for their unwavering commitment to improving the integrity of the background investigation process,” Susan Ruge, associate counsel to the Inspector General of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), said in an emailed statement after the Senate vote. She said it would help ensure background checks meet the “highest quality standards”.

A U.S. Justice Department complaint filed against USIS in January 2014 said the company had claimed it completed and reviewed at least 665,000 background checks, without actually checking their quality. That amounted to about 40 percent of all background investigations carried out by the contractor between March 2008 and September 2012, according to the complaint.

Earlier this month, a USIS spokesman confirmed reports that OPM had decided not to renew any of its contracts with the company. “There is nothing in the bill that states who should conduct the quality reviews,” said Marnee Banks, a spokeswoman for Tester. But “it’s our understanding that OPM will be conducting the quality reviews in house,” she said.

Read more in National Security

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