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USIS, the NCAA and the search for justice

USIS and its problems with Congress and the Justice Department over alleged problems with how it conducted certain security clearances reminds me a lot of the NCAA and how it handles violations of its rules.

Now, I’m not making light of the allegations against USIS, but I’m just wondering why there isn’t a better way to handle it.

In the NCAA, you see it time and again; a program gets in trouble, the coach moves on to another college, while the program gets fines and sanctions. Wins and titles are vacated.

Meanwhile, the coach moves on, for the most part untarnished, but his former school may take years to recover its reputation. In the case of the Southern Methodist University football program, you can argue it’s never recovered from a scandal that rocked the school in the mid-1980s.

USIS has three different allegations being leveled at it.

The company did the background investigations of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter.

In both of those cases, the company has been cleared of any wrongdoing. The investigations followed all the procedures laid out by the Office of Personnel Management.

Contrary to popular belief, USIS doesn’t “clear” anyone, nor does it make recommendations; it passes the information on to the appropriate agency, and that agency makes the determination – called adjudication – of whether a clearance should be granted.

Sterling Phillips, USIS CEO, tried to make that clear in his testimony Feb. 11 before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

The third allegation involves the Justice Department and a False Claims Act lawsuit filed against USIS.

Here is where USIS predicament most closely parallels the NCAA, at least in my mind.

While the Justice Department only joined the lawsuit in the fall, the case was filed in July 2011 by former USIS employee Blake Percival.

He claimed that the company had a process to circumvent final reviews and release the results of its investigations more quickly, saving money and increasing profits. To the agencies that hired USIS, it looked like they were receiving a full review, according to the lawsuit.

It looks like there is some truth to his allegations, but a lot has happened to USIS since 2011.

First, the company has new senior leadership in Phillips and others. He took over at the company in January 2013 and brought a new management team with him.

At every opportunity, he and others at the company have argued that the allegations involve a small group of people who are no longer with the company. USIS has also instituted new controls and oversight procedures. The company is cooperating with the investigation.

And more recently, OPM, which is the agency that makes the vast majority of clearance requests, said that no contractor will conduct final reviews. The final reviews will be conducted by the government. The final review is the last step before the adjudication process for granting the clearance.

I’ve seen nothing that indicates that USIS is a bad actor today and hasn’t been since Phillips took the reins.

The bigger question is what to do now. Is a punishment needed? A suspension or debarment seems like overkill to me, because the bad behavior has stopped and those responsible are no longer with the company.

So, who exactly should be punished?

The easy out is to force USIS into a settlement where they pay millions fines but do not admit guilt. We’ve seen a lot of those settlements over the years, and it’s never been clear to me who benefits from that result.

I wonder if the Justice Department should target individuals rather than a company. That’s probably a much harder and expensive case to win, but it seems more appropriate to me.

After all, companies don’t make decisions; people do. And with the alleged wrongdoers long gone from USIS, it seems unfair that those left behind should be the ones to suffer.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Feb 14, 2014 at 11:53 AM


Reader Comments

Sat, Feb 15, 2014 Larry Sudphen Washington

USIS is a govt contractor, just like a couple of hundred thou of other companies. It has a reputation. Companies build reps over days and months and years--and over every bit of customer work they do. Reps are fragile, and they don't mend just because a better CEO is on the watch. If the company indeed billed the govt for hundreds of thousands of investigations that it did not do correctly, and appeared to lie (certify) it did things right, and perhaps even had a scheme to pump the numbers to earn numbers, those mistakes deserve investigation, a handsome civil settlement, or, depending on what statement DOJ wants to make, a criminal prosecution. In most senses, that kind of mistake does not recede or fade with time. If the allegations are proven, or a settlement is made, it would--and should--reduce the trust of the USG in this company. We can't apply sports rules to serious government work. Look what a botched clearance investigation or two can do? To go limp and soft and just say time has passed and there is a new leader in town not only harms national security, but also the interest of Federal employees, Federal contractors who do good work, and their investors, and citizens everywhere.

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