Michelle R. Smith / AP

Census Still Has More Steps to Take to Ensure It Doesn't Hire More Child Sex Offenders, IG Says

The agency hired a registered sex offender earlier this year, who was arrested for engaging in a sexual act with a child two months later.

As the Census Bureau prepares to hire 500,000 employees in the coming months, it still has steps it must complete to ensure one group of undesirable applicants does not come on board: registered sex offenders. 

That is what happened earlier this year when a Charlotte regional office—one of 248 the agency is standing up throughout the country in preparation for the 2020 decennial count—hired Kevin Mabry, who was convicted in 2013 on felony misconduct involving a child. Mabry was again arrested for sexual misconduct with a child two months later. 

The incident was first reported in May and Census has since taken some steps to improve oversight of its hiring and background check process. After conducting an investigation at the behest of the North Carolina congressional delegation, however, Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson said the bureau must still take further steps to ensure such an incident does not reoccur. 

After a regional office recruits an applicant, Census Investigative Services at the bureau’s headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, conducts a pre-employment suitability review. That includes sending a fingerprint to the FBI and self-disclosures on the applicant's prior criminal record and credit history, both of which go to a CIS contract employee for review. That specialist creates a file on Census’ automated personnel system and reviews that all forms are correct, investigates criminal charges or convictions, examines credit history and addresses any outstanding issues and, finally, issues a suitability determination. 

The contract employee is supposed to assess criminal records based on the nature of the position, how recent the conduct was, attempts to rehabilitate and other factors. The determination then goes to a CIS supervisor, a Census employee, for a final determination. Census hires also receive a full background check after they begin working for the agency. 

Mabry’s fingerprint review came back noting a 2011 arrest and 2013 conviction for felony misconduct involving a child. He was sentenced to five-year probation and forced to register as a sex offender. The CIS specialist noted the conviction on Mabry’s file, but took no further action before issuing a favorable recommendation. 

“Other than the note, there was no evidence in the case file that the specialist conducted any reviews or analysis of Mr. Mabry's prior criminal record,” the IG said. 

Several issues should have “raised concerns,” Gustafson added, including the probation just ending a month before the suitability review and the conviction involving a child. The specialist should have validated that Mabry was on the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry and sent a letter to Mabry to get more information on the charges. Instead, the contract employee noted the conviction and said it was relevant and actionable, but did not take any steps to follow up. 

The specialist did investigate a blip on Mabry’s credit history, but said it was resolved in 2018. Without supporting evidence, the contractor issued a favorable recommendation and said “no issues were found.” Four days later, a CIS supervisor, who is a Census Bureau employee, concurred with the recommendation and approved the hiring. The IG found no evidence the supervisor conducted any follow up regarding the issues with Mabry’s review. 

Mabry began working for Census in January 2019. He was arrested for "engag[ing] in a sex act" with a nine-year-old girl in March and subsequently fired. His post-employment background check was still underway at that point. 

“Neither the specialist nor the supervisor adhered to existing policies and guidelines when adjudicating Mr. Mabry's background investigation,” the IG said. “We learned that, in this case, the specialist neither adequately obtained and reviewed all relevant information nor identified and addressed all the issues, as required by CIS policy.”

The specialist who made the initial favorable recommendation no longer works for the CIS contractor “for reasons unrelated to Mr. Mabry’s hiring,” the IG said, while the supervisor still works for the Census Bureau but is no longer at CIS. 

While Gustafson said Mabry likely would have never been hired if the specialist and supervisor had followed procedure, the IG still called on Census to fix issues that could be systemic in the bureau. The Mabry incident demonstrated that previous steps Census had taken to ensure supervisors adequately review suitability recommendations and that CIS officials are properly monitoring contractor performance are inadequate, Gustafson said. 

Census has added a box supervisors must check for each applicant, however, to affirm they reviewed all relevant documentation. They will now also have to provide the date in which they completed the form review. The bureau also updated supervisors’ responsibilities in the CIS standard operating procedures. 

The IG further called on Census to review all prior favorable suitability determinations made by both the specialist and the supervisor. The bureau should also implement “quality assurance reviews” of CIS supervisors to ensure all suitability determinations are “properly determined and supported” and better train specialists and supervisors. 

Census did not respond to a request for comment.