Controversial Background Check Contractor Tries to 'Set the Record Straight'

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is among the lawmakers critical of USIS. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is among the lawmakers critical of USIS. Flickr user Howard County Library System

The Falls Church, Va.-based contractor performing the largest share of background checks for federal security clearances has issued a point-by-point rebuttal of recent criticisms from lawmakers and others who believe the firm’s ethics troubles should bar it from continued government work.

“USIS is a responsible federal contractor,” reads the statement issued after five House members led by Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., on Sept. 2 wrote  to the Homeland Security Department urging it to withdraw a $190 million border security contract that prompted a protest from a competing firm.

“The company is facing fraud charges from the U.S. Justice Department for ‘dumping’ 665,000 background check cases without conducting proper reviews,” the lawmakers said. “Considering their past record and these worrisome allegations, we believe the stakes are too high to allow USIS to be put in charge of one of our most important border security programs.”

USIS in August suffered a cyber attack that prompted stop-work orders from DHS and the Office of Personnel Management. In addition, its policy of awarding bonuses to parent company executives while battling fraud charges has drawn fire from Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and others.

USIS also drew unflattering publicity during coverage of two major news stories last year when the facts emerged that the contractor had performed the background checks on National Security Agency contractor-turned leaker Edward Snowden as well as on Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.

In its rebuttal, USIS stated that it has been a “trusted partner” of the government for 18 years, serving more than 20 agencies and delivering 40 percent of the federal background checks, or 21,000 investigations a month. The company defended its recent Field Office Support Services contract given to its subsidiary that does not perform background investigations “after a rigorous two-year competition which meticulously followed government procurement procedures.” It stated that the losing firm, as the incumbent, was well known to contracting officers. USIS then accused critics of “attempting to exploit the recent criminal cyber-attack detected and reported by the company….

“In light of the impact these inaccurate allegations are having on our 5,700 employees, many of whom have served our country in the military or other government service, it is imperative that USIS set the record straight.”

The contractor asserted:

  • USIS’ investigations of both Snowden and Alexis were complete and are not at issue in the Justice Department’s fraud case;
  • Just because a contractor is the subject of a Justice complaint about contract compliance does not mean it cannot bid on and win additional contracts, and a previous similar challenge to this contract award by another “disappointed bidder” was rejected by the Federal Claims Court in March;
  • The employees involved in delivering the allegedly incomplete background checks are not currently with the firm, while the executive team at USIS has largely turned over; and
  • Contrary to common assertions, USIS does not grant security clearances—only agencies do, after a contractor delivers a background check file.

But Sharon Virts of FCi Federal, the founder and CEO of the protesting contractor, told Government Executive on Monday, “USIS is accused by federal prosecutors of perpetrating a massive fraud against the government and taxpayers. Our protest shows USIS leveraged this activity, claiming it did a ‘quality job’ for OPM, to earn undeserving high scores in bidding for this new $200 million immigration services contract. Our protest is supported by both the facts in the case and procurement law, and we are confident that GAO will agree that USIS should be deemed ‘High Risk’ and not a responsible contractor, because, in this country, bad behavior should not be rewarded.”

Virts also challenged USIS’ claim that its PSD subsidiary is separate from USIS LLC, saying they have shared resources for the DHS contract. “Recent news shows USIS is falling woefully behind in completing its other work for DHS and [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] at application support centers around the country,” she said. “No company with this kind of performance record should be entrusted with responsibilities so critical to our country – border security and immigrant naturalization, the most sacred benefit that a nation can bestow.”

Separately, on Monday, the Government Accountability Office released a report  on security clearances faulting the Defense and Homeland Security departments for having inconsistent criteria for removing an individual’s security clearance and noting that the total number of such revocations is unknown. GAO recommended that the agencies improve data tracking, and they agreed.

(Image via Flickr user Howard County Library System)

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