BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- The U.S. Census Bureau has fired two supervisors in a local New York field office after whistleblowers disclosed they were instructed to falsify population data, senior agency officials told a congressional panel on Monday. The former employees now are facing possible felony charges.
"This is deeply troubling," Bureau Director Robert Groves told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a field hearing in downtown Brooklyn attended by several members of the New York congressional delegation. "I find it abhorrent to all of the principles underlying the work of the Census Bureau."
The incident occurred in June in the Brooklyn Northeast Local Census Office, an area that historically has been tough to count because of its large population, high percentage of difficult to access apartment complexes, and bevy of new immigrants and undocumented workers.
Groves told the committee the office manager and assistant manager for field operations -- neither of whom was identified at the hearing -- directed clerks and other staff to complete questionnaires using information found on a computer database known as FastData, rather than conduct personal interviews. The office operations supervisor refused to comply with the directive and resigned in protest.
Information on roughly 1,000 addresses was transcribed directly from database printouts onto the survey forms, officials said. When information was missing from the database, the manager told clerks to falsely record that the resident had refused to respond, said Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser. Some clerks told the IG they were instructed to infer the number of residents associated with an address or to simply enter 1.
The practice not only is against Census regulations but likely would lead to inaccurate results. Groves said the database, which is supposed to be for quality assurance purposes, is filled with erroneous information and was meant to be used only to match phone numbers to addresses for potential follow-up inquiries. Access to FastData is restricted, but the assistant manager previously had worked in the quality assurance division and retained access privileges that were not authorized, officials testified.
An office clerk and the office supervisor who resigned later reported the misconduct to the IG. The database left an electronic footprint of its usage and the two supervisors were fired on June 18. The IG also has forwarded the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York for a possible felony charge of falsifying Census records.
"I have reasonable grounds to believe that laws were violated," Zinser said. The criminal referral is the first related to possible fraud by supervisors during the 2010 count, he said. Investigators, however, are continuing to follow up on about 40 allegations related to Census irregularities.
Groves said even if the whistleblowers had not come forward, the behavior likely would have been discovered during mandatory re-interviews of residents.
Cleaning up from the reported violations in Brooklyn has proved both costly and complicated.
The bureau directed office management to re-enumerate all cases that involved the database, including addresses that might have been checked prior to the most recent incident. Any cases supervisors completed after the whistleblower allegations were filed also were reworked, Groves said. And officials conducted an independent investigation to ensure that FastData was not used in an adjacent Brooklyn office.
In total, the office was required to redo more than 4,200 cases, or about 2 percent of Brooklyn's population. The IG puts the cost of the effort at approximately $50,000 while Groves suggested it would be closer to $250,000.
"Anything that compromises the integrity of the 2010 Census is unacceptable -- there's too much at stake here," said Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee whose home district includes much of Brooklyn. "We must do everything we can to make sure the final count is accurate and complete."
But new allegations made during the second recount have raised even more questions about the management and operations of the two Brooklyn field offices.
A second whistleblower complaint filed in early July found that enumerators were entering estimated counts for households that appeared inhabited but for which they could not obtain information, a violation of procedures, Groves said. The staffers allegedly entered survey data based on observable information, such as the presence of pets or names on a mailbox, investigators found.
The bureau now is conducting a third recount for some of the Brooklyn addresses, as well as beefing up its training techniques and investigating whether similar shortcuts were taken elsewhere.
Brooklyn is no stranger to Census problems. During the 1980 count, a local Census office was burned down as a result of arson, destroying virtually all documents for one of the poorest regions of the borough.
In the 2000 census, Brooklyn had a participation rate of 52 percent. The figure is expected to be 55 percent for the 2010 count, compared to the national participation rate of 72 percent.