OPM’s quality check on background investigation cases not up to IG standards

The Office of Personnel Management's watchdog says a quality assessment conducted by the agency on questionable background investigations has some problems of i...

The Office of Personnel Management and the agency’s Office of Inspector General are grappling over a special review on the quality of, and subsequent recommendations for, an assessment of more than 100,000 background investigation cases mishandled by a security-clearance contractor.

In a recently released memo on the IG’s special review of OPM’s quality assessment of U.S. Investigation Services’ background investigations, auditors determined that OPM’s incorrect interpretation of Department of Defense guidance and lack of documentation for a handful of cases, warranted an evaluation of 103,369 cases to determine whether any “missing items” or “missing coverage” could be recovered and added to those files.

“The recommended categorization will: 1) identify and address those [investigations] which have already been reinvestigated, and 2) identify and flag those which have not been reinvestigated yet, so that they receive additional scrutiny when FIS [OPM’s Federal Investigative Services] next has occasion to open an investigation on that subject,” the September IG report said. “This will allow FIS the opportunity to address any issues and to apply additional scrutiny to these background investigations that may not have had proper review. We want to ensure that FIS does its due diligence in ensuring individuals are suitable for the clearances for which they are sponsored.”

FIS, in its response to the IG’s conclusions, however, defended its evaluation and warned that “the re-evaluation of over 103,000 investigations because 13 investigations that we acknowledge contained quality errors, but in your view were not categorized properly, is not feasible.”

“Evaluating these investigations to determine the potential for missing investigative coverage that is unlikely to change an adjudicative outcome would require an excessive number of resources that would be diverted from FIS’s primary and critical function of providing background investigations in a timely manner to over 95 percent of the Federal Government,” FIS officials said.

At issue are the hundreds of thousands of cases reported to be “dumped investigations” by USIS, meaning the contractor did not perform “contractually required quality reviews of background investigations  and correct background investigations” on the subjects, but submitted them anyway to FIS.

FIS reviewed 1,100 of 103,369 cases to determine whether USIS actually did it’s job correctly. Their assessment was then submitted to OPM’s inspector general for review.

Findings and responses

According to FIS’ findings, “it does not appear there was any effort on the part of USIS to intentionally close investigations and not refer those meeting criteria to the Federal staff. During the time frame of the alleged dumping, USIS continued to refer cases to Federal review in large numbers. The Quality Assessment revealed that most of the cases were closed in accordance with the contract and were found to be Complete or Justified (i.e., any missing coverage was properly annotated).”

FIS also determined that 6.1 percent of the cases were incomplete but “‘Acceptable for Adjudication’ in accordance with a … Department of Defense (DoD) Memorandum entitled, ‘Adjudicating Incomplete Personnel Security Investigations,’” while only 3.2 percent were labeled as missing coverage or issue resolution.

“Most of these errors appear to be the result of a lack of attention to detail,” FIS said.

That Defense Department memo was one subject that auditors took issue with, according to the special review.

The memo outlines how to categorize certain cases as incomplete but still “acceptable for adjudication,” according to FIS’ standards.

“After analyzing the cases in our sample, we do not agree with how FIS applied the DoD memorandum during its Quality Assessment,” the IG reported. “Specifically, the DoD memo indicates that an explanation should be provided in the background investigation report when information is missing or incomplete. Our sample included 13 cases which FIS categorized as incomplete, but acceptable for adjudication per the DoD memorandum. We do not concur with FIS on any of these cases because no explanation or ‘investigator’s note’ was provided to explain the missing coverage. Therefore, we believe these cases should have been categorized as unacceptable.”

“We are also concerned that FIS used the DoD Memorandum as a blanket justification for the incomplete background investigations of other independent, non-DoD entities when it should have applied only to DoD background investigations,” auditors said.

Officials with FIS argued that the agency knew the memo was to be used just as a guide, and its application of the memo was discussed with the IG’s office.

“We would like to reiterate that the DoD Memorandum was not used as a ‘blanket justification’ for either DoD or non-DoD entities … the criteria in the memorandum was used as a standardized gradient measure of the information missing from all investigations, regardless of requesting agency,” FIS said. “As previously noted by both OIG and FIS, this methodology was mutually agreed to at the onset of the sampling.”

The OIG added a reply  in its report, stating that regardless of knowing the memo would be used, that “does not mean we were going to automatically agree with FIS’s interpretation” of it, nor did it change auditors’ minds on feeling the memo’s use was “not a proper application.”

Lack of documentation was also where the IG’s office and OPM disagreed.

In three cases, the IG reported, FIS’ quality assessment determined they were complete/justified, but auditors argued that without having all the necessary documentation, “FIS cannot reach a conclusion on the quality of a dumped investigation …”

FIS responded that for these three cases, the agency was able to look at previous files to ensure no issues had arisen that would impact the current review.

The two sides did agree on one observation: inaccurate conclusions on background investigations.

The IG’s office determined that in six cases, FIS’ findings were inaccurately labeled. FIS responded that it agreed that “in these six cases our findings were inaccurate based on OPM’s operational guidance.”

OPM’s handling of background investigations has been in the spotlight for the past few years.

In 2013 it was revealed that USIS also performed investigations of both National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. That same year the Justice Department joined a False Claims Act suit against the company accusing it of signing off on at least 665,000 investigations over a 4 1/2 year period that had never been properly vetted.

The IG’s office requested a response from OPM within 60 day of the review’s publication.

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