- Grove City, Pennsylvania

January 27, 2014

USIS all about confidentiality

Company's an enigma; workers sworn to secrecy

By Michael Roknick/Herald Business Editor
The Herald

GROVE CITY — People in the Grove City area tried to get a handle Friday on the legal wranglings of one of its biggest employers.

USIS was hit with a civil lawsuit Wednesday alleging the background check company defrauded the federal government by submitting at least 665,000 investigations that were not properly completed, then trying to cover it up. USIS was involved in the background investigation of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, but that 2011 investigation wasn’t part of the lawsuit.

USIS’s mission as a contractor for the federal government is to work for the office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for performing background investigations of current or prospective federal employees and contractors.

The company’s greater Grove City operations looks to be the center of attention as that’s where the background checks are performed.

Last October, the Wall Street Journal reported that top USIS executives brow-beat managers at its Grove City area operations to hurry the pace of background checks to boost revenue. Demands for faster turnarounds on those checks built in intensity in 2010, and in 2011, the company won a federal contract that could fetch up to $2.7 billion.

Establishing itself in Grove City in the late 1990s, USIS found the area attractive because of its proximity to an abandoned mine in Boyers, Butler County, where vital records had been stored by the government. Once the domain of the federal government, background checks services were privatized in 1996.

The company’s beginnings in Pennsylvania weren’t stellar, when it came to hitting goals for delivering jobs.

Pennsylvania provided the company $5.166 million in grants and tax credits for adding employees in Butler, Mercer and Allegheny counties, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development. USIS got three grants, totaling $1.425 million, in 2001, 2003 and 2007. At the same time, Pennsylvania provided it with $3.741 million in job-creation tax credits.

Then-Auditor General Jack Wagner issued a report critical of one of the grant programs that gave money to USIS.

That report also showed that USIS received $519,000 in incentives on the promise of 920 jobs, but only 172 were created. A USIS spokesman acknowledged those figures and said that as a result all of the financial incentives were returned to the state.

USIS has two buildings in the area which house employees – one at the former Cooper Bessemer office in Grove City and the second in the former Ames department store which was converted to an office in the Pine Grove Plaza in Pine Township.

An employee in the lobby of the Pine Township office said Friday that managers would not agree to interviews and referred all inquiries to the corporate office in Falls Church, Va.

The Herald’s request to interview any USIS official on Friday was rebuffed. Attempts over the last 10 years have also been rejected.

“We’re not doing such interaction with the news media,’’ said Pat Scanlan, a USIS spokesman said Friday.

USIS did release a statement Friday which said that integrity and excellence are core company values that guide its 6,000 employees.

“The alleged conduct referenced in the civil complaint is contrary to our values and commitment to exceptional service,’’ the statement said. “These allegations relate to a small group of individuals over a specific time period and are inconsistent with the strong service record we have earned since our inception in 1996.’’

Upon learning of the allegations two years ago, the company “acted decisively’’ to reinforce its working requirements, the statement said. Further, the company has cooperated fully with the government’s investigation.

“We appointed a new leadership team, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved control protocols,’’ the statement said.

Around town, there was at least one sign of sloppy handling of confidential information by USIS about six years ago.

Frank Lapa, owner of Lapa’s Barber Shop in the heart of downtown Grove City, said his store began getting faxes meant for USIS which contained personal information about those looking to work at the company. Other faxes contained similar information on subjects of background checks that USIS was conducting for the government. Information included addresses, Social Security numbers and family data.

Lapa said he called USIS and someone in its security department came to his shop and picked up the faxes and said the problem would be fixed. Still, the faxes kept coming.

Another call to USIS drew the attention of a company vice president who was irked by the problem.

“He came in and had my fax line changed to a new number at their expense,’’ Lapa recalled.

But the faxes continued to roll in.

Another call by Lapa to the vice president, whom he didn’t name, resulted in swift action.

“He really got angry,’’ Lapa said. “He took care of the situation – and I mean it was a ‘right-now’ thing.’’

While Lapa said he wasn’t sure how the situation was resolved, he suspected the company might have converted to a system where the information was transported by a courier.    

The Herald made overtures for interviews with several current USIS employees in the area but all declined, saying they had signed confidentiality agreements with the company.

That didn’t surprise one former USIS worker who said the company’s protocol of forbidding employees to talk with journalists was likely reinforced in recent days.

“I’m sure they had meetings, phone calls and e-mails with employees on how to handle themselves,’’ the former worker said.

Former employees were willing to talk about the work culture at USIS. They said it ranged from absolute boredom from looking at documents and a computer screen all day to a pressure cooker where jobholders were pressed to get as much work done as possible.

One commonality among former employees was fear of the company taking legal action against them if they talked with the media.  

All said they signed a legally binding agreement after leaving the company promising, among other things, not to talk about their work with reporters, commonly called a non-disclosure agreement.

Even after The Herald agreed not to disclose their identities they were still reluctant to discuss certain aspects of their work at USIS.

One former employee with more than five years under his belt said he was fired with a group of 30 others over a staggered period of time. He felt there was little choice in signing the agreement. He said he was told by company officials that if he refused to sign he wouldn’t get six months of severance.

“I had a family to tend to and payments to make,’’ he said. “What do you do?’’

Most bothersome, he said, was that neither he nor any of those fired in that group were ever given a reason for their dismissals.

He scoffed at the company’s contention that its legal woes were due to rogue employees not doing their work properly.

“The general feeling is the local people got screwed,’’ he said.

“It was the bigwigs that made all the decisions and we were the ones left as the scapegoats.’’

He acknowledged the firing left him bitter.

“My life has been a living hell,’’ he said. “You did as good of a job as you could do and somebody at a much, much higher level causes the problems.’’

After working there for one year typing data into computers, one employee said he was fired after he left work early one day.

“They escorted me out the door,’’ he recalled. “To tell you the truth, I was glad I got fired, I hated the work.’’

CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent John Finnerty contributed to this story.

Published Jan. 25, 2014, in The Herald. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.