The Haunting of Hacker House

I put it into Google, as Ben picked up a book. I wasn’t up for another meandering farrago, but curiosity was hard to resist. And there it was: Dawn in The Wall Street Journal. Her story was another doozy.

Several years ago, Dawn worked at a sketchy joint called the United States Investigations Services, a private contractor that did security investigations for government jobs. Seems the place was a background-check boiler room, with a Glengarry Glen Ross corporate M.O., which incentivized rushing through checks at a lunatic pace.

As Dawn explained from the driver’s seat, I read her words in the Journal: “It was a never-ending nightmare,” she said of USIS. “Every day you had that pressure.”

According to a 2014 audit by Michael Esser, who was then the Office of Personnel Management’s assistant inspector general, USIS conducted background checks too hastily to get them right. Fast work is dangerous work, and the result was a miserable staff at USIS, including Dawn. She eventually sued USIS for unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

According to federal filings, USIS in its haste made grave mistakes. In 2007, they evidently overlooked multiple reports of misconduct and violence in the history of Aaron Alexis, a Navy Reserve officer, and cleared him as a military contractor. Six years later, he killed 12 people and wounded four when he shot up the Washington Navy Yard in one of the deadliest mass murders on a military base in American history.

And then, in 2011, USIS glossed over some problems on the background check of one Edward Snowden. Snowden slipped into the NSA, where he, to put it decorously, leaked state secrets.

In 2013, Patrick E. McFarland, inspector general for the Office of Personnel Management, said in a Senate hearing about USIS that “we do believe there may be some problems” with Snowden’s clearance.

The government agreed. After OPM conducted a reinvestigation of Snowden and found irregularities, they launched a civil case against USIS. By 2014, the Justice Department had joined it, alleging that, under the direction of Bill Mixon, the company had rubber-stamped at least 665,000 background investigations that had not been thoroughly vetted. The civil case had been filed by the original whistle-blower, onetime USIS employee Blake Percival, in 2011; according to The Washington Post, he said he’d been fired from USIS for refusing to order his underlings to submit incomplete background checks to the US government for payment.

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Percival walked away with $3.3 million of the government’s $30 million settlement, money that USIS had been ordered to forfeit. Dawn’s lawsuit was settled. (USIS admitted no wrongdoing, and one of her claims was dismissed.) “Only the first whistle-blower gets money,” Dawn told Ben, whom she was still addressing in the rear-view mirror. He nodded.

(Dawn’s story brought to mind Tricia Newbold, a longtime member of the White House Security Office who was suspended without pay in December, just after protesting the office’s decision to give top-secret security clearance to presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner’s legendary troubles with his SF-86 far eclipse Snowden’s.)

Since leaving USIS, Dawn told us that she’d applied for thousands of jobs in her field, but has settled on freelance work: peddling nutritional supplements at a multilevel-marketing company; waiting tables at a P.F. Chang’s; and now working as a rideshare driver.

The epilogue to Angela’s story is upbeat. Gonzalez is in jail. Shadowcrew went down. And no one will ever be conned quite the way Angela was on the internet. As for Dawn, the epilogue is bleaker. Aaron Alexis is dead. Edward Snowden is hiding out in Moscow. William Mixon, who led USIS but seems to have paid no price for background-check churning, is described on LinkedIn as “Currently CEO at National Seating & Mobility (NSM), North America’s most experienced provider of complex rehabilitation seating, mobility and positioning systems.”

I highly recommend traditional B&Bs, especially the far-flung ones. The voluble owners are not for everyone, but the whole thing is an antidote to chic Airbnbs or lonely self-service boutique hotels. Linger after breakfast amid the knick knacks, and ask for war stories. Ask about the hutches, the divorces, Edward Snowden. You can find a great, affordable, weird B&B with just a little sleuthing on the internet. Just don’t advance anyone $10,000.


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