Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Gerald Herbert/AP File Photo

Lawmaker Wants to Force Testimony From Security Clearance Firm CEO

A USIS executive received more than $1 million in bonuses despite flawed work.

In the latest twist in the revelations of flawed employee background checks by contractors, a key Democrat on the House Oversight panel is demanding help from his chairman in coercing testimony on bonuses from the CEO of the government’s largest security clearance service provider.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who clashes frequently with Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on Monday delivered a letter requesting a transcribed interview with Sterling Phillips, CEO of the Falls Church, Va.-based U.S. Investigative Services, the company performing more background checks for the Office of Personnel Management than any other firm.

Investigations into former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified materials last spring and a Washington Navy Yard contract employee’s fatal attack on colleagues last September showed that the contractors vetting federal employees and contractors took short cuts in their work.

The Justice Department is suing USIS under the False Claims Act for “dumping” as many as 665,000 incomplete background checks on OPM to meet deadlines.

Cummings’ complaint follows on a February staff report documenting that after a firm called Providence Equity Partners purchased USIS in 2007 for $1.5 billion, the company “adopted an aggressive new compensation plan to speed up its background investigations work,” at a time when former USIS CEO Bill Mixon received more than $1 million in bonuses, with other six-figure bonuses going to colleagues.

Cummings pressed Phillips for answers about USIS bonus policies during the period of alleged fraud. “USIS’s refusal to answer committee questions is unacceptable, and it contradicts the oath Mr. Phillips took at the outset of the hearing to tell the entire truth about the role of his company in an alleged conspiracy to perpetrate a multi-year, billion-dollar fraud against the U.S. taxpayers,” Cummings wrote.

Issa, on other occasions, has frequently required uncooperative witnesses to submit to a transcribed interview, Cummings wrote, noting that Issa himself had written Phillips in March saying the hearing record remains open for further answers on the bonuses.

Phillips had previously explained that the bonuses were determined by Altegrity, a holding company that was formed by Providence Equity Partners. Through his attorney, Phillips this month said he would have no further comment.

An Issa spokesman told Government Executive the committee is reviewing the letter. In a statement, USIS said, "The company has been very responsive to the OGR Committee, including engaging in open discussions in-person with committee members and staffers, responding to numerous written requests, and providing thousands of pages of materials related to our business and the background investigations process."

OPM did not respond to inquiries before publication.

Meanwhile, a group of senators is pushing a bill to keep contractors from conducting the final quality reviews of their own background investigations. The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last week cleared the bill, sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; and Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Though OPM Director Katherine Archuleta this spring announced that her agency would henceforth perform all final background check quality reviews, Tester said that this policy could be reversed in the future without legislation. 

This story was updated to include a comment from USIS. 

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