A job seeker takes notes during a 2020 Census recruiting event in California on Jan. 8, 2020.

A job seeker takes notes during a 2020 Census recruiting event in California on Jan. 8, 2020. Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

Census Hired Hundreds of Thousands to Conduct Its 2020 Count. It Didn’t Vet A Lot of Them.

Applicants with major issues in background checks were allowed to work at the agency, IG says.

Individuals with criminal records and others unsuitable for federal employment had direct interactions with Americans during the 2020 decennial census, according to a new report, as the agency conducting it failed to properly review the wave of employees it quickly brought on to carry out the count. 

The Census Bureau had hoped to recruit more than 2 million applicants for the recent enumeration and had sent out 900,000 job offers just before it began its work. Eleventh-hour adjustments and the COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruptions throughout the process, leading to widespread complaints of management’s chaotic approach from the agency’s workers and stakeholders. According to a new report from the Commerce Department's inspector general, that disorganization also led to inadequate background checks of applicants and a still-growing backlog of unaddressed investigations. 

Applicants to the bureau undergo a pre-employment suitability review by Census Investigative Services at the agency’s headquarters. That includes sending a fingerprint to the FBI and self-disclosures on the applicant's prior criminal record and credit history, which go to a CIS employee or contractor for review. The review is supposed to include a check that all forms are correct, investigations into criminal charges or convictions and examinations of credit history. Specialists should then address any outstanding matters and, finally, issue a suitability determination.

Employees who receive a favorable rating can then start working, but they still must go through a post-employment adjudication. That includes a full background investigation by the Defense Department. CIS then makes a final determination on whether the employee can continue working for Census.

As of 2019, some of the unadjudicated background checks that the Office of Personnel Management had sent over dated back to 2014. The IG found that dozens of employees who worked on address canvassing in advance of the 2020 census had “major” issues flagged on their investigations, which typically means employees are automatically disqualified from their federal jobs. The current backlog is between 6,000 and 12,000 cases, the IG said, citing two different numbers it received from two different Census offices. The agency still has cases outstanding from 2014. 

CIS only employs four staffers, inhibiting it from quickly reducing the backlog. As the backlog continues to grow, Census is risking allowing employees with “major suitability issues” to stay on the rolls without receiving proper vetting. 

“While hiring for the 2020 Census has ended, CIS is still impacted by the background investigations that must be processed to hire for other bureau surveys, which contributes to the workload of recent post-employment cases,” the IG said. 

In a sample of 46 cases, the auditors found five individuals that OPM flagged as having major issues in their backgrounds are still employed by Census and were never properly vetted by the agency. In cases when CIS adjudicators did vet the employees, they often did not request or maintain the necessary documentation to assess the severity of the issues raised. CIS employees were never trained on case adjudication, the IG said, and supervisors failed to conduct the required secondary reviews despite repeated warnings from the investigators. 

“The lack of oversight increases the risk of unknowingly allowing unsuitable individuals into positions of public trust, which could cause harm to the bureau,” the IG wrote. 

During the 2020 Census, many of the temporary workers with “limited access to bureau systems” received abbreviated reviews conducted entirely in-house. Applicants essentially only had their fingerprints checked and identities verified. In a sample of those cases, the IG found 15% required adjudication based on factors such as a criminal charge or recent firing. Half of those—whom the IG noted would serve as enumerators and “interact with the public in the capacity”—never received a proper review by CIS. Most of them went on to work for the bureau during the field operations for the 2020 count.  One applicant, for example, had more than 25 years of criminal charges ranging from felonious assault with a gun to domestic violent, but CIS never followed up for additional information and did not flag the applicant. 

Census' vetting process came under fire in 2019 when it hired someone who was twice arrested for sexual misconduct with a child several years earlier. The individual was forced to register as a sex offender, but still received a favorable recommendation from CIS. He began working for Census in January 2019 and was arrested for engaging in a sex act with a nine-year-old girl in March and subsequently fired. His post-employment investigation was still underway at that time. 

Overall, the IG concluded more than 7% of census workers who only received a fingerprint did not have their cases properly adjudicated. This led to “persons with significant issues working for the bureau and, in some instances, contacting households during the 2020 census.” 

Improving the background check process, the IG said, would “help protect the nation's interest by providing a means to establish and maintain trust in the federal government workforce.” 

The IG told Census to better track its backlog, evaluate its staffing needs to address it and ensure managers are overseeing a proper adjudication process. The auditors also said Census should remove any worker who is unsuitable for employment and still on the bureau’s rolls. Agency management agreed with the IG’s recommendations. 

Robert Santos, the Census Bureau director, said his agency takes the background investigation process very seriously and that its pre-employment screenings are "rigorous." Still, he said Census has begun implementing process changes, including ensuring that all “unfavorable” cases are reviewed by two personnel security specialists.

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