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FAST AND LOOSE: Did Ramon Davila’s Sloppy Investigative Work Lead To The Snowden Affair? (Answer: It’s Classified)

Ramon Davila RESIZE

     Ramon S. Davila of St. Croix

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Former Virgin Islands Police Commissioner Ramon Davila quit his job as a senior special agent with the U.S. Customs Service a decade ago, after an internal probe found that he had run up tens of thousands of dollars in dubious government credit card charges, violated weapons laws and obstructed an internal affairs investigation, according to court records.

Though some Customs officials proposed firing Davila, the agency instead allowed him to resign under a deal that kept the proposed disciplinary action out of his personnel folder. Within months, he applied for — and received — a contract investigator job vetting top secret government clearances, according to records.

In June 2013, Davila pleaded guilty to falsifying security clearance background checks, joining a growing list of at least 19 background investigators or researchers since 2008 to plead guilty to or face sentencing for falsifying background checks.

The Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general is working on nine more such cases, but says a backlog of 36 others still awaits investigation because of a lack of resources.

All told, the government has spent more than $1.5 million to reopen investigations that were falsified to ensure applicants who received clearances were entitled to them. Among the applicants vetted by Frederiksted native Davila, for instance, were employees and contractors for the Air Force, Navy and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Of the 24 counts of false statements charged in the Davila case, 23 involved investigations for top secret clearances.

Concerns over the integrity of security clearance background investigations have drawn more attention after Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contract employee, leaked details about classified NSA surveillance programs to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers.

Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Inspector General Patrick McFarland told a Senate panel that a 2011 reinvestigation into Edward Snowden’s background check by U.S. Investigation Services (USIS) of Falls Church, Va., may have been faulty.

Snowden is a 30-year-old whistleblower and former National Security Agency contractor. He left his home in Hawaii in May 2013, traveling to Hong Kong to leak documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald. At the time of his departure from the United States, Snowden worked as a Booz Allen Hamilton systems analyst doing contract work for the NSA.

USIS, a private company, acknowledged that it received a subpoena for records from the inspector general in January 2012 and said in a statement it has cooperated fully with the government’s “civil investigative efforts.”

McFarland also told lawmakers that his office has had a “consistent backlog” of fabrication cases pending since 2008. Dozens of cases are waiting to be opened following referrals from OPM, but McFarland said his office is hampered by a lack of resources.

“The longer it takes before we can conduct the criminal investigation, the more likely it is that witnesses’ memories will fade to the extent that they are no longer good witnesses for trial,” he said.

At the same hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said McFarland’s investigation is looking into a “systemic failure” to adequately conduct background checks.

In another case, in which an investigator falsified nearly one in three credit checks performed, USIS was forced to reopen 1,465 cases, spending more than $120,000.

Saying it conducts thousands of investigations, USIS said its work is confidential and declined to comment about Snowden’s 2011 background check.

Since 2008, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington has prosecuted at least 19 background investigators in cases involving both contract and federal employees, including eight at USIS.

In court papers, one investigator blamed the falsifications on “a lazy, poorly reasoned choice,” but others cited being overworked and stressed. Another attempted suicide after being caught.

OPM, which oversees background investigations for the government, declined to comment specifically on Davila’s case.

But in a written statement, Merton Miller, OPM’s associate director for federal investigative services, said that OPM had overseen more than 2.2 million background investigations in fiscal 2012 and misconduct rarely occurs.

“OPM has developed and implemented a proactive integrity assurance program and robust training in this area, with strong internal controls to ensure investigators are performing in accordance with federal standards,” Miller said.

Francis Hoang, a former White House associate counsel to President George W. Bush, who represents defense and security contractors, said the steady stream of falsification cases points to a broader trend.

“We take functions that used to be done by the government and we contract them out, generally starting out at a high premium,” Hoang said. “We pay a lot. We get good, qualified people. As contractor dollars shrink … the products and services are falling short.”

A ‘troubling’ case

Amid the wave of background investigation falsifications, Davila’s case stands out, experts say.

“The most troubling thing about this scenario is that [Customs and Border Protection] agreed to keep such serious allegations about this guy private,” said Phil Becnel, managing partner of Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group in Washington, an expert on background investigations.

Becnel said one problem with background checks highlighted by Davila’s case is that agencies and companies that investigate people for misconduct often fear disclosing too much to investigators for fear of being sued.

“So when you have one government agency substantiating such serious allegations about someone and agreeing to keep the matter private, they’re really doing the rest of the federal government a tremendous disservice,” Becnel said.

Officials at Customs and Border Protection did not respond to repeated requests for comment days after being provided a copy of a court filing that detailed the internal investigation into Davila’s conduct.

Davila’s attorney declined to comment. Davila faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Before he could find work as a background investigator in 2004, Davila first had to undergo his own background check. Davila answered “no” when asked if he had ever left a job by mutual agreement following misconduct investigations. But around the same time, prosecutors said Davila had agreed to quit his Customs job following a proposed removal action seven months earlier.

None of the misconduct findings resulted in criminal charges against Davila. And prosecutors only disclosed the probe in a court motion in May, seeking to introduce the evidence at trial.

According to court records, the internal probe began in February 1997 and ended six years later.

The probe substantiated an allegation that Davila, the Virgin Islands police commissioner in the Schneider-Mapp administration, had told a St. Croix police chief in 1998 not to provide Customs internal affairs agents with reports they had requested relating to a homicide investigation.

Investigators also found he had misused the Treasury Department’s enforcement computer system to run queries on two political candidates in 1994. And a probe uncovered more than $50,000 in charges from 1994 to 1998 on Davila’s government credit card for expenses such as stays at the Mirage and Sands hotels, airfare for his sister and other non-Customs employees, and tennis and golf fees.

After the internal investigation ended, Davila agreed to resign “in lieu of disciplinary action,” court documents state.

A draft of the agreement obtained by prosecutors, which was not filed in court, expressly provided that Davila’s official personnel folder would not contain any record of proposed disciplinary action, government records show.

What’s more, even the agreement itself would be kept “strictly confidential,” except as necessary for official government business, filings show.

“At least in part as a result of Davila’s false representation, the investigator conducting Davila’s background investigation never uncovered this negative information regarding Davila’s employment history,” prosecutors wrote in a filing.

A spokesman for USIS said Davila, 61, was never employed with the company, but he worked as “one of hundreds of certified independent contractors used by the company on occasion to augment its own workforce.”

“The services of Mr. Davila were terminated by USIS in November 2007, when evidence first appeared that he was falsifying reports,” USIS spokesman Ray Howell said.

Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden is interviewed by The Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong...Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden is seen in this still image taken from video during an interview by The Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong June 6, 2013. Snowden was on July 24, 2013 granted documents that will allow him to leave a Moscow airport where he is holed up, an airport source said on Wednesday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Snowden, who is wanted by the United States for leaking details of U.S. government intelligence programmes, was expected to meet his lawyer at Sheremetyevo airport later on Wednesday after lodging a request for temporary asylum in Russia. The immigration authorities declined immediate comment. Picture taken June 6, 2013. MANDATORY CREDIT. REUTERS/Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/Courtesy of The Guardian/Handout via Reuters (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS MEDIA) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. MANDATORY CREDIT
Former U.S. spy Edward Snowden in exile in Russia.
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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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