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The Era of Security Clearance Self-Review Could Be Permanently Over

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Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana Charles Dharapak/AP File Photo

Fallout continues from last September’s fatal shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, with a prime federal contractor, U.S. Investigative Services (USIS), emerging seriously but not irreparably scathed.

The Falls Church, Va.-based company, which conducts about two-thirds of federal background checks on private contractors and has been charged with fraud by the Justice Department for submitting incomplete background checks, would no longer be able to review its own work under a Senate bill introduced Thursday. 

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., joined with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to introduce the Preventing Conflicts of Interest with Contractors Act. “Letting federal contractors review their own work is like letting the fox guard the henhouse,” said Tester, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce, in a statement. “This common-sense bill will put national security ahead of profits, hold federal contractors more accountable, and make our nation safer.” 

Added Begich: “Glitches in our government security clearance processes are unacceptable and recent tragedies have shown that there is no room for error. Our bill is a simple fix creating checks and balances on the contractors conducting background investigations by prohibiting the same companies conducting background investigation work from also conducting quality review.”

The bill would put into law a policy announced in early February by Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta requiring all final reviews of background checks to be performed by OPM.

Tester’s earlier Security Clearance Oversight Reform (SCORE) Act was signed into law on Feb. 12 by President Obama and gives financial resources to the inspector general of the Office of Personnel Management to probe questionable contractors’ performance on background checks. 

USIS, which remains under investigation and has reshuffled its leadership, was also criticized by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which notes that USIS is facing an unfair labor practices class action by former employees.

Despite its legal challenges, the company has been awarded more than $142 million in contracts so far this fiscal year, POGO investigator Neil Gordon confirmed on USAspending.gov. “The uncertainty that hangs over USIS shows us once again the downside of the government’s over-reliance on contractors,” he wrote, questioning why agencies don’t hasten to invoke the suspension and debarment tool against irresponsible vendors. “In short,” Gordon wrote, “the government figured ‘better the devil you know’ and decided to stay with USIS, which has pledged to turn over a new leaf.”

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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