Justice Department joins lawsuit on company's background checks

Story highlights

  • U.S. Justice Department joins lawsuit filed in Alabama
  • It contends contractor improperly issued background checks
  • Firm vetted Edward Snowden
  • USIS says it has taken steps to "ensure quality"
USIS, the government contractor that did the background check on former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, used a practice known as "dumping" to issue incomplete background checks to the government for security clearances, according to a whistle-blower lawsuit the Justice Department joined on Wednesday.
The private suit brought in Alabama by a former USIS employee, Blake Percival, claims that USIS aimed to boost revenue and maximize profits by using proprietary computer software to automatically release incomplete background checks done at the request of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
The suit claims USIS improperly billed the government agency for checks that the company knew were not done under terms of its contract.
USIS, based in Falls Church, Virginia, has been under fire for months as lawmakers have lodged criticisms of the company for what they say is shoddy work on government background checks.
Several former employees have been prosecuted by the Justice Department for allegedly not doing background investigations that they were assigned to do under USIS's contract with OPM.
In a statement, USIS said it is cooperating with the government investigation: "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. USIS has taken these allegations seriously since they were first brought to our attention 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. We have put in place new leadership, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved protocols that have been shared with OPM."
The company did background checks on Snowden, who has been the source of thousands of leaked documents on the NSA's surveillance activities, and Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter.
The company did the Alexis check properly according to OPM guidelines, the agency has said.
Lawmakers have raised questions, however, about the Snowden background check, saying there were problems USIS may have missed. OPM has said it has an ongoing investigation of USIS that doesn't relate to the Snowden background check.
The Alabama suit is filed under the False Claims Act, which allows so-called whistle-blowers to sue on behalf of the government and collect a share of funds recovered in the lawsuit. The Justice Department often reviews such lawsuits and decides whether or not to join; joining such suits usually increases the chance of success because the government uses its legal resources.
The Justice Department said Wednesday it has asked a federal court in Montgomery, Alabama, to be given until Jan. 22, 2014, to file its own legal complaint in the case.
A group of lawmakers, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, announced legislation to tighten government security clearance requirements, ordering more frequent audits of employees and contractors with those clearances.
"There are systemic failures in the current process that are jeopardizing our ability to protect our nation's secrets and our secure facilities," said McCaskill, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.