Background Investigations Conducted by the United States Marshals Service

E&I Report No. I-2005-002
February 2005
Office of the Inspector General


Executive Summary


The Department of Justiceís (Department) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reviewed the United States Marshals Serviceís (USMSís) program for conducting background investigations of new applicants and periodic reinvestigations of current employees and contractors. We assessed whether the USMS ensured that background investigations and reinvestigations were timely, thorough, and complied with federal regulations and Department policies. To conduct this evaluation, we reviewed policies and procedures, interviewed officials involved in the process, and analyzed selected sample files for USMS employees and contractors.

The USMS background investigation process is divided into two distinct phases: the field investigation, when information is gathered on personnel; and the adjudication, when any potentially derogatory information is assessed and suitability for employment is determined. Investigations on USMS employees and contractors are conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for USMS political appointees and attorneys, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) or its contractors for other USMS employees and some contractors, and the USMS itself for contract court security officers (CSOs) and certain contract guards. Adjudications are conducted by the Departmentís Security and Emergency Planning Staff (SEPS), the USMS Human Resources Division, and the USMS Judicial Security Division.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

Our review found that the USMS placed employees and contractors in national security or public trust positions only after the field investigation was completed or it issued a waiver, in accordance with federal regulations and USMS policy. However, we identified deficiencies in both the field investigation and adjudication phases of the USMS background investigation program. Due to incomplete and outdated policy guidance, inconsistent procedures, and incomplete and inaccurate data systems, the USMS did not ensure that field investigations or adjudications were timely or thorough. In fact, our analysis showed that investigations were slow, and neither investigations nor adjudications were consistently thorough.

Specifically, we found that the USMS placed or retained personnel in national security or public trust positions without complete investigative information. We also found that OPM investigations of USMS personnel were not consistently timely or thorough. USMS field managers sometimes rejected the adjudicatorsí recommendations without providing written justification and the USMS hired or retained a few of these employees who subsequently engaged in significant misconduct. We also found that some reinvestigations were overdue. Furthermore, the USMS did not require reinvestigations for CSOs who have law enforcement responsibilities and carry firearms, regardless of how many years they worked at the USMS. By correcting these deficiencies, the USMS can better ensure that the individuals assigned to its national security and public trust positions have been thoroughly screened.

USMS policies and procedures for conducting background investigations are out of date and incomplete.

The most recent USMS policy guidance about its background investigation process was a draft 2001 Policy Directive on Personnel Security. USMS management told the OIG that the draft 2001 Policy Directive was intended to replace the 1995 USMS Security Policy and Procedures Manual, but it has never been completed or officially adopted. Moreover, neither document includes procedures to guide staff in implementing each step in the background investigation process.

In lieu of USMS policy guidance, USMS managers we interviewed indicated that they follow policy guidance provided by OPM and the Department through SEPS. With the exception of the 1995 and 2001 documents, we found no evidence that the USMS had prepared written guidance for its staff on how to implement OPM and SEPS policies to meet USMS personnel security requirements. In addition, USMS managers told us that they had implemented some changes without updating written policy, such as the transfer of authority from SEPS to the USMS for completing all national security background investigations at the Top Secret and lower levels.

We believe an organization the size of the USMS should have written guidance for ensuring personnel security. The USMS has 94 field offices nationwide and more than 4,000 employees and 12,000 contractors subject to background investigations. Its background investigation program is decentralized, with two internal organizations and SEPS sharing management responsibilities. The lack of written policies and procedures makes it difficult for the USMS to ensure that its background investigation program is consistent, effective, and accountable.

The databases used by the USMS to manage its background investigation program did not have complete and accurate information.

We found that the USMS relies on databases that are inadequate to monitor and assess its background investigation process. Because of these deficiencies, we could use them only in a limited way for our review. Our examination of the two Human Resources Division databases created to track background investigations of USMS employees and non-CSO contractors revealed that they were incomplete for identifying current personnel, inaccurate for tracking key event dates, and not structured to allow monitoring of compliance with significant regulatory and Departmental timeliness requirements. For example, the databases could not identify all current personnel whose background investigations had been conducted at headquarters; key data fields, such as the initiation or completion of an adjudication, were incomplete in over one-third of the records; and the USMS used the same field to record initial and subsequent background investigations, making it difficult to determine whether the USMS had complied with regulations and Department policy in initial hires because historical data was overwritten. In contrast, the USMS Judicial Security Divisionís database for tracking the status of CSOsí background investigations, medical suitability issues, and credit checks was current and complete. However, it did not contain information that Judicial Security Division management could use to facilitate planning, budget formulation, and assessment for its background investigation program.

Although field investigations conducted by all three entities on USMS employees and contractors were slow, adjudications of these investigations were generally timely.

There are no federal regulations that require that field investigations be completed within a specified number of days. We found that average investigation times ranged from 63 days for the field investigations USMS deputy marshals conducted on CSOs to 115 days for the field investigations the FBI conducted on USMS political appointees and attorneys. OPM investigations averaged 96 days for USMS employees and 104 days for USMS contractors.

Federal regulations require that adjudications of field investigations take place within 90 days. We found that adjudications of field investigations were generally timely. Both the Judicial Security Division and the Human Resources Division completed adjudications on average in less than 90 days. However, SEPS adjudications averaged 180 days to complete.

The USMS made adjudications based on incomplete files.

During our review, we found that 9 (14 percent) of the 66 employee investigation files and 8 (35 percent) of the 23 non-CSO contractor investigation files we examined lacked required documentation, such as internal affairs checks from prior law enforcement positions and employer references. Some of those files contained statements that OPM had not and would not attempt to obtain the missing information. The USMS adjudicators stated that they obtained some information themselves, but did not consistently obtain each document or reference omitted by OPM before adjudicating the case. We conducted a separate analysis of the background investigation files of employees who had been cited at a later time for misconduct and found that their files were more likely to have been incomplete than those of the employees in our general sample. This suggests that a complete field investigation is important for a background investigation to be effective in identifying potentially unsuitable personnel. We found that although the USMS adjudicators were not consistently completing the deficient OPM field investigation files, they were thorough in addressing potentially derogatory issues that surfaced during the background investigation process.

We also found that the Judicial Security Division issued security approvals to CSOs based on incomplete information. Our review indicated that required documents related to criminal history were missing from a quarter to a third of the 33 files in our sample. In addition, the Judicial Security Division conducted credit checks for only 16 (48 percent) of 33 files and verified medical suitability issues for 9 (50 percent) of the 18 files in our sample that contained medical issues.

USMS field managers sometimes pressured the Human Resources Division to set aside adjudicators' recommendations.

In reviewing the background investigation files of 28 USMS employees who had sustained misconduct charges, we found the adjudicators had recommended that 3 of the employees not be granted security approval. In each of these cases, a Human Resources Division supervisor added a memorandum to the file stating that the derogatory information was not sufficiently serious to justify denying a security approval for the individual.

When we asked about these cases, a senior Human Resources Division official said he had received verbal pressure in at least one of these cases from a high-level field manager to grant the security approval and, in response, had written a memorandum arguing that security approval be granted despite the adjudicatorís negative recommendation. He stated that it was not uncommon to receive input, usually by phone, from people outside his office who sought to influence decisions that are being made by the Human Resources Division on particular employees or applicants. This influence often comes from a U.S. Marshal in a district office who knows the applicant or employee. Unlike the files of those later cited for misconduct, the files in our general sample of 89 employees and contractors contained no Human Resources Division adjudicator recommendations against security approval.1

Reinvestigations were overdue for some employees, and the USMS did not reinvestigate contract CSOs who served in law enforcement positions.

The USMSís policy requires that it initiate reinvestigations every five years for employees and contractors serving in national security positions and for employees holding high- and moderate-risk public trust positions. In our sample of 54 cases, we found 2 instances in which reinvestigations had not been initiated within five years and 5 in which they had been initiated but not completed within five years.

In our general sample of employees, 54 of the 66 had worked longer than five years and were subject to reinvestigation, while in our misconduct caseload 26 of the 28 were subject to reinvestigation. We therefore also looked at two areas where delays in initiating or completing reinvestigations might have serious consequences: instances involving employee misconduct and instances in which security clearances lapsed. In the first area, we found that a higher percentage (19 percent, or 5 of 26) of employees with sustained misconduct charges had reinvestigations that were initiated but not completed than did employees in our general sample (9 percent, or 5 of 54). In the second area, we found that the USMS took the necessary steps to initiate reinvestigations. If holders of clearances failed to submit an application for reinvestigation, the USMS suspended their security approval. The Human Resources Division stated that there are currently no employees with lapsed clearances who require access to national security information.

While the Judicial Security Division requires extensive background investigations before hiring contract CSOs (who serve in law enforcement positions and carry firearms), it does not reinvestigate them as a matter of policy. Our analysis of Judicial Security Division data showed that 2,208 (51 percent) of its 4,323 CSOs had been employed for five or more years. As a result of this policy, the USMS does not have the same assurances for CSOs that it requires for its employees with similar law enforcement duties.

RECOMMENDATIONS

In this report we make seven recommendations to help the USMS ensure that its background investigation program identifies applicants and employees who are not suitable for national security and public trust positions. The recommendations focus on revising policies and procedures, upgrading the databases that are used to manage background investigations, improving the thoroughness of adjudications, developing controls to monitor the background investigation process, and requiring that contractors fulfilling law enforcement duties be reinvestigated. We recommend that the USMS take the following actions:

  1. Revise and formally adopt written policies and procedures that address all aspects of the background investigation process to reflect current federal regulations and Department policy.

  2. Develop an adequate structure for the Human Resources Division database to ensure that essential data are not overwritten and to enable both the Human Resources Division and the Judicial Security Division to monitor compliance with regulations and Department policy.

  3. Implement procedures to routinely review the accuracy of the databases that the Human Resources Division and the Judicial Security Division use to manage the background investigation program.

  4. Require periodic written reviews on the efficiency and effectiveness of the background investigation program to determine if process improvements are needed.

  5. Develop guidelines for adjudicators that include instructions on how to proceed when an OPM investigation is incomplete and criteria for recommending security approvals and disapprovals that are consistent with OPM and Department policy.

  6. Require that the Chief of Human Resources Services fully document comments from field managers on an adjudicatorís recommendation regarding a security approval for an applicant or employee.

  7. Require reinvestigations every five years for contractors who are assigned law enforcement duties.


Footnotes

  1. This includes the 66 employees and 23 contractors, including those with investigations conducted by other agencies, whose cases were adjudicated by the USMS Human Resources Division.