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Interior Dept. Bungles Passport Records

By Ed O'Keefe

The Interior Department’s inspector general has found widespread mishandling and tracking of highly valuable passports issued to department officials traveling overseas, alleging that in numerous instances employees violated federal privacy laws. Several expired passports could not be accounted for and inspectors also could not locate the passports once issued to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and two former staffers embroiled in criminal and internal ethics investigations.

Gale Norton
The diplomatic passport of former Interior Secretary Gale Norton is unaccounted for. (Photo by AP)

“Given the risk of misuse that missing and unsecured passports, visas and passport applications pose, we cannot understate the importance of acting swiftly to address these violations and prevent their recurrence,” Acting Inspector General Mary L. Kendall wrote in a memo sent with a copy of the report last week to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The report warns that the mismanagement and lax protection of passports and passport applications could result in cases of fraud or identity theft impacting current and former employees.

The report (pdf) claims widespread mismanagement of records at the passport offices of the National Business Center (NBC), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). The three offices manage requests for diplomatic and official passports with the State Department, which issues them to government officials traveling overseas. At Interior, only Salazar carries a diplomatic passport, while an estimated 3,000 employees carry official passports, including employees of BOR, USGS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Office of Insular Affairs, according to the report.

Investigators found approximately 200 files containing applications and expired passports “stacked on unsecured shelves and spilled onto the floor” at NBC’s passport office, according to the report, despite assurances that such information would be kept in steel safes with three-way combination locks. Passport agents appeared to give more security to passports than passport applications, even though the applications contain more sensitive personal information than passports. Agents also admitted they had kept applications and expired passports on record longer than allowed by federal regulations. Despite their required attendance at annual Privacy Act training courses, investigators concluded that most staffers did not know how to properly handle sensitive personal information.

The report says agents could not account for at least 49 expired passports of former employees and suggested many more are also missing. Employees must surrender their official or diplomatic passports upon leaving the department. Norton’s passport could not be located even though she completed the exit clearances that require the surrender of her diplomatic passport. An NBC employee signed Norton’s clearance form indicating she had returned her passport without actually receiving it, according to the report. Norton, who now serves as a general counsel for the Shell Corporation, was traveling yesterday and unavailable for comment, according to a company spokeswoman.

Investigators also discovered that a former Mineral Management Services employee who pleaded guilty last September to felony charges that he helped arrange contracts that benefited him upon his retirement had failed to return his passport, as did a former Fish and Wildlife Services employee who resigned in 2006 after two investigations for violations of ethics standards.

The three passport offices have until June 19 to repond to the report's findings. In a statement, Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes said he is reviewing the report and will work with the IG’s office to address the report’s findings.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who regularly tracks oversight investigations, called on the department to take immediate action.

“A United States passport is one of the most coveted forms of identification in the world and passport applications contain information that, if put into the wrong hands, is an invitation for fraud, identity theft and other crimes, which could even have national security risks,” he said.

By Ed O'Keefe  | May 26, 2009; 4:43 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Oversight  
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Comments

Another case of incompetent Bushies, who would have guessed it?

Posted by: hairguy01 | May 26, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Well, for crying out loud, do we have incompetent people running our security environment? Gee, what does it take to opens people’s eyes to check for normal security operations. Someone needs to be fired for such cause of interruption of security. Daaaa here we go again.

Posted by: juanlong | May 27, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Well done,Affirmative Action,what did you expect?

Posted by: esibmr | May 28, 2009 2:57 AM | Report abuse

esibmr, your idiotic comment demonstrates that you didn't read either the article or the actual IG report. FYI, you dolt, the OIG conducted the inspection of the offices on January 29, 2009, a mere seven and 1/2 days AFTER President Obama took office. Gale Norton, the former Secretary of the Interior, left DOI in 2008. One of the former employees named in the report left the agency in 2005, the other named former employee left there in 2006.

So, since these violations related to violations and failure that originated in the Bush administration, it seems to me that the only "affirmative action" individual who could possibly be the subject of your idiotic commentary is George W. Bush, who was SELECTED by the Republican Supreme Court to be POTUS based on his mental retardation and the easy opening in his back that allowed Cheney and Rove to pull his strings, call the shots, and ruin this country.

Get a grip and get a life, you loser!

Know what you're talking about before you embrace, repeat, and post Teh Stupid.

Posted by: drs2008 | May 29, 2009 3:43 AM | Report abuse

Minor edit, good old Gale left DOI in 2006, before she could get indicted and convicted of a federal crime like her #2, that loser, unethical, lying thief J. Steven Griles.

Posted by: drs2008 | May 29, 2009 3:45 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for the informative article and I'm glad someone is watching what's going on in Washington. Most of us can't travel there, we're too busy working, taking care of families, etc. to watch these people being paid by us to do their jobs. Are they understaffed? I don't think so. So who is in charge of this mess that they allow "passports" to be missing..Wonder how many have been stolen? I don't know about the rest of you but I find that employees now days seem to have no expertise on anything except one thing as compared to when I worked-I learned how to take responsibliity to learn as much as I could so that I was at least able to help a customer if the person on that desk was away for some reason. It's like very few care anymore-it's just a 9 to 5 and all of us go home. Government jobs pay very well, the benefits are the very best, and I would thing a person lucky enough to get a job working for them would be grateful and try at least to do well. I can't imagine a pile of applications in an open box, spilling onto the floor where anyone can just pick them up and use them for other purposes. They need to replace the boss if he or she can't do the job...

Posted by: noseyten | May 31, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

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