WASHINGTON — For years, investigators charged with vetting the backgrounds of those who handle the nation’s secrets have said they were pressured to churn through cases as quickly as possible. The faster they turned them in, the faster their company got paid — even if the investigations were rushed and incomplete.
The company, USIS, lost the contract to conduct background checks used in granting security clearances after an employee blew the whistle in a lawsuit, eventually joined by the Justice Department.
After a scandal in which members of Congress accused USIS of defrauding the government and prioritizing profit over the nation’s security, federal officials vowed to prevent such abuses from ever happening again.
But a similar quota system used by USIS to drive its investigators continues at the companies that now perform the bulk of the investigations — and in some cases is even more demanding, according to internal company documents and interviews with current and former investigators.
The field workers at KeyPoint Government Solutions and CACI are required to meet predetermined numbers that dictate how many people they have to interview per day. With their compensation tied to quotas — failure to meet them could lead to a cut in pay — field investigators say the focus on quantity over quality that was so pervasive at USIS persists.
And the pressure to meet the goals often doesn’t allow them the freedom to follow important leads to determine who should be granted access to classified material, they say.
Despite the congressional outcry, the contracts’ payment system is still structured so that the faster the contractors turn over the cases to the federal government, the quicker they get paid. And the federal government imposes a financial penalty if the companies miss their deadline.
The constant pressure to move through cases quickly may be coming at a dangerous price, said Carolyn Martin, president of the American Federal Contract Investigators Association, a professional group.
The system is ‘‘just producing shoddy investigations,’’ she said. ‘‘They are out there getting the points, checking the blocks. They are not conducting investigations.’’
One investigator, who worked at both USIS and KeyPoint, said he left both companies because of the emphasis on speed over thoroughness.
‘‘It was just too rushed,’’ the former investigator said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. ‘‘I couldn’t in good conscience continue. I refused to cut corners, and it made me look like I couldn’t perform to their unreasonable expectations.’’
In a brief statement, KeyPoint said: ‘‘All security clearance investigations are subject to strict internal and external thresholds measuring quality, thoroughness, and accuracy. Falsifying any element of a federal security clearance investigation is a felony.’’
On its website, KeyPoint says that its ‘‘commitment to timeliness and quality is unwavering . . . because we know the work we do directly contributes to national security, we will never sacrifice quality for speed.’’
CACI’s site says that it ‘‘fosters a culture based on integrity, strong ethics, quality, and professionalism,’’ and that its investigators ‘‘contribute to the safety and security of our nation in the company of colleagues who value trust and integrity above all else.’’
The companies also evaluate their investigators based on the quality of their reports, they say, often sending files back for additional work so that they meet thoroughness standards.
Both KeyPoint and CACI said they were prohibited from responding to multiple requests for comment by the terms of their agreements with the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that oversees background investigations for most of the federal government.
In an interview, Merton Miller, associate director for the OPM’s Federal Investigative Services, defended the investigative system, saying that he ‘‘absolutely’’ had full confidence in it.
There are ‘‘very strict quality standards for our field work contractors as well as our feds, so that when they do the work, they do it right,’’ he said.
Miller said he was aware that the companies use productivity metrics, but said he did not know that they have a tiered system that ties investigators’ compensation to their productivity.
‘‘That has not been brought to my attention,’’ he said.