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DOJ hunts for possible fraud in background check of Navy Yard shooter

Authorities in Newport, R.I., were so concerned about an encounter with Aaron Alexis that they contacted a nearby naval station, describing in a report his belief he was being followed and being kept awake by a "microwave machine." NBC's Pete Williams reports.

Justice Department prosecutors are reviewing the security clearance given to Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis as part of an expanding federal investigation into suspected fraud in the granting of such access, law enforcement officials tell NBC News. 

Prosecutors working for Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen are examining the circumstances surrounding the “secret” security clearance given to Alexis by the Navy in March 2008 -- despite a previous arrest for shooting a neighbor’s car, one official said. They are also seeking to determine why Alexis was permitted to retain the security clearance as a civilian contractor despite two later arrests — one for disorderly conduct in Georgia and another for discharging a firearm in Fort Worth, Texas — as well as mental health problems that were reported to the Navy, the official said.  

Two sources familiar with the investigation said the initial background investigation of Alexis is believed to have been conducted by an outside contractor working for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal agency charged with conducting background checks for individuals seeking security clearances. The agency oversaw 2.1 million such investigations in 2012, about three-fourths of which were  performed by outside contractors, according to federal officials. 

An OPM official would not say whether the actual work on Alexis’ background check was performed by an outside contractor. The official did, however, state that OPM was aware of, and reported to Navy officials,  Alexis'  arrest for "malicious mischief" in Seattle in 2004.  In that  incident, in which no charges were filed, Alexis was accused of shooting the tires of a neighbor's car, but claimed not to remember the incident because he was suffering from a "blackout fueled by anger," according to a Seattle police report.    

While declining to discuss details about Alexis, Matthew Jones, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Machen,  said in a statement to NBC News: "In light of recent events, we plan to step up our efforts to investigate and prosecute the individuals and companies who risk our security by cutting corners and falsifying information in background checks." 

Machen's statement comes as top Pentagon officials say they will conduct sweeping reviews of the security clearance process for military staff and contractors.

"Where there are gaps, we will close them," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday. "Where there are inadequacies, we will address them, and where there are failures, we will correct them."

Machen -- working closely with the OPM inspector general's office -- has been pursuing suspected fraud in the granting of security clearances. In the last four years, his office has convicted 19 private and government  investigators for submitting fabricated reports about the backgrounds of federal employees and civilian contractors seeking security clearances giving them access to classified information. 

OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland, whose offices makes criminal referrals to Machen, has an additional 68 active and pending investigations, according to figures supplied by his office. That represents a 44 percent increase in its caseload in the last three months. 

The cases have typically involved contractors fraudulently claiming to have conducted interviews or checked records in case reviews submitted to the OPM. One contractor who pleaded guilty to filing fraudulent reports  claimed to have interviewed an individual who had been dead for 10 years, according to Justice Department officials and court records. Another, due to be sentenced next month, made "false representations" in "multiple reports" that ended up causing OPM officials to redo the work, costing the government nearly $160,000, a Justice Department press release said.   

As part of its probe, Machen's office has specifically investigated the practices of USIS, a leading outside contractor that got attention last spring when it was disclosed it had performed a background check on Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has admitted leaking thousands of pages of documents revealing the details of government surveillance programs. 

Sources familiar with the probe said that Machen's probe was examining whether company officials engaged in "dumping" or "flushing," a practice in which employees were encouraged to rush through multiple background checks in short periods of time, thereby compromising quality. Prosecutors are also examining allegations that USIS employees submitted bogus reports to OPM, claiming quality controls, such as "secondary” or back-up reviews of applicants that were never performed. 

Ray Howell, a USIS spokesman,  told NBC News that the company “did not perform the background investigation of Mr. Alexis” but declined further comment.   

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In a statement posted on its website in June, the company acknowledged it had "received a subpoena for records from the OPM Office of the Inspector General in January 2012. USIS complied with that subpoena and has cooperated fully with the government’s civil investigative efforts. Given the ongoing nature of the investigation, we cannot comment further. The company looks forward to a timely resolution."

The Experts, the information technology firm that hired Alexis to work on a computer job at the Navy Yard,  said through a spokesman that it twice checked with the Navy and was told his security clearance was in good standing. The firm’s CEO, Thomas Hoshko, told The Washington Post that if the firm had been aware of any of Alexis’ arrests and mental health problems, “We would not have hired him.”

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