Government Regulations

Written By ESR News Blog Editor Thomas Ahearn

A flaw in the background check system of the United States Census Bureau allowed a registered child sex offender to get a job with the agency in Charlotte, North Carolina after a government watchdog agency warned the system was “inadequate,” according to an investigation by FOX 46 in Charlotte.

The FOX 46 investigation found the Census Bureau was told in 2018 that its background check system was “inadequate” and “not fully prepared” for the 2020 Census by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG), the government’s own watchdog agency, which found:

  • Escalating costs and inadequate quality assurance practices pose risks to 2020 Census background check activities. Since October 2010, the Bureau has used a series of time-and-materials (T&M) and labor-hour contracts – at a cost of $16.7 million – to support its background check activities. These types of contracts are considered high-risk because the price is not fixed and depends on the number of labor hours that contractors need to complete the requirements. There is no incentive to the contractor to control the cost or ensure labor efficiency.
  • The Bureau is not adequately monitoring contractor activities. We identified issues specifically related to the manner in which program officials are currently managing contractors, as well as the manner in which both program officials and contracting officials are administering the current T&M contract. Unless program officials begin performing required oversight and surveillance, the expenditures scheduled for the remainder of the first option period and remaining three option periods ($11,132,002.56) may be considered funds to be put to better use.
  • Program officials are not always allocating background check costs to the correct fund. Program officials did not understand that costs for specific activities, such as processing background checks for decennial census applicants, should be charged against the correct funding sources. As a result, between January 2016 and April 2017, a total of 22,704 hours, at a cost of $1.1 million, were allocated to the wrong project codes.

The OIG report – “2020 Census: The Bureau’s Background Check Office Is Not Fully Prepared for the 2020 Census” – also warned: Applicants who may be unqualified or unfit may nonetheless pass a background check and be sent to the homes of U.S. residents to collect personal information.

FOX 46 reported that months after the OIG report with the warning was released in February 2018, the Census Bureau hired Kenneth Mabry, 44, in August 2018, a convicted child sex offender who attempted to molest an 11-year-old in 2013 and who is on the North Carolina sex offender registry.

FOX 46 reported that Mabry was “dispatched to churches, community fairs, and parades to recruit employees” and that he “was then promoted to manage the entire Charlotte office” in January 2019. Mabry was subsequently arrested in March 2019 for allegedly molesting a nine-year-old girl.

The Census Bureau sent FOX 46 a statement on May 10, 2019, which stated in part: The U.S. Census Bureau takes very seriously its obligation to ensure that the people it hires, especially those who visit or personally engage with the public, do not represent a danger to any individual or community.

In response to the OIG report, the Census Bureau spokesman, Michael Cook, said the Bureau has “taken action on all of the six recommendations outlined by the OIG. Four of the six corrective actions are complete, and we are on track to closing the remaining two very soon.” The six OIG recommendations were:

  • Use available data to estimate the number of staff needed to complete background checks to support the 2020 Census workload and assess whether a T&M contract is needed or if there are other, more efficient methods to control costs.
  • Develop written policies and procedures that address supervisory and employee responsibilities in approving background check applications.
  • Evaluate whether the current contract is being managed as a personal services contract and make the necessary changes required to prevent circumventing the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).
  • Train contracting and program officials to ensure they perform proper oversight and surveillance of service contracts.
  • Train program officials to charge salary costs appropriately.
  • Verify the obligation of appropriated funds for background checks and determine whether they have been apportioned and allotted correctly.

In April 2016, ESR News reported that the Census Bureau agreed to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed the criminal background check system used to hire workers for the 2010 census racially discriminated against African American and Hispanic job applicants with arrest records.

The settlement ended a lawsuit claiming job applicants for the 2010 Census with an arrest record had to produce official court documentation within 30 days to be eligible for work which caused 93 percent of the applicants with an arrest record – approximately 700,000 people – to be excluded from Census jobs.

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