There are many mandates President-Elect Donald Trump will be tasked with in the new year, but one of them is especially and inordinately urgent: revamping the Census Bureau.
Even though the Census is taken only once every ten years as required by the U.S. Constitution, the data that it provides is used for a plethora of government functions, including taxation, funding allocation and determining how many legislators there are in the House of Representatives from any given state.
Census data is used by the government to report demographic figures, employment numbers and economic statistics. Having accurate data is important, as is calculating the information in a manner that’s palatable to Wall Street and financial analysts.
Under President Obama, data from the Census was revealed to have been less reliable than in previous years because of systemic fraud and misrepresentation of measures for everything from employment to crime. Some of this was due to poor methodologies used, while the remainder was the result of purposeful employee fraud.
In some cases, the Obama administration took advantage of these inaccuracies, while in other cases, it tried to rein in the Census Bureau through threats to have it report directly to the White House, instead of to Congress via the Commerce Department, its nominal overseer. The effort failed.
An overhaul of the Census should be possible prior to 2020, the next time it’s due to be taken, but if President-Elect Trump wants to effect this, he’s got to act fast.
The Census Bureau agency has been suffering through multiple scandals. In 2015, 40 workers at the bureau were let go in an overbilling scandal the agency’s Inspector General called a pattern of “pervasive misconduct.”
Starting in 2010, these 40 employees of the agency billed it for a total of 19,162 hours they didn’t work — the equivalent of 2,395 8-hour workdays, or nearly 10 man-years worth of work. The cost for this fraudulent activity was more than $1.1 million.
As many as 19 of the 40 employees had discrepancies in their working time of more than 400 hours each. Up to nine employees were paid for 100 days they didn’t work, with one offender claiming a full 160 days not worked.
Two contractors of the agency billed it for a fraudulent 361 working hours before it was determined that one of them had a sexual relationship with an agency employee. The agency also apparently regularly failed to complete its background checks on new employees via its Census Hiring and Employment Check (CHEC) department.
Apparently, all of this activity was reported via a whistleblower hotline, but prior to its being reported, an environment of intimidation was prevalent whereby people who talked to investigators were threatened. At an office party, one worker purportedly made a stabbing motion with a knife being used to cut a cake and said that was for the person “who went to the office of the Inspector General,” according to an IG report on the matter.
“In sum, the evidence obtained over the course of the [IG]’s investigation establishes that certain CHEC Office employees engaged in a wide variety of misconduct that stretched over several years,” the report stated. “Moreover, the evidence shows that some CHEC supervisors either led or participated in the misconduct, while others failed to report these abuses, take material steps to address the misconduct or take sufficient action to prevent future abuses.”
And it might not come as a surprise, but after reports of this overbilling, the agency found itself without enough cash to conduct necessary surveys. In some cases, the agency improperly billed the costs of its surveys to other government bureaus.
The agency eventually admitted that it was having trouble getting respondents to fill out its surveys, and in many cases, its employees and contractors simply cheated and filled out the necessary forms themselves. In a number of these cases, “field representatives were flagged for items requiring supervisory attention, yet supervisors took no action to investigate these issues,” according to the IG’s office.
The Inspector General’s report ultimately concluded that the agency’s statistics on crime, the economy and other measures were “shoddy” and that inaccurate data may have been supplied to the Justice Department and to many state governments.
For the 2020 Census, the Bureau has said that for budget purposes, “imputations” — also known as guesstimates — will be used for some numbers via data collected from the Post Office, the Internet and other means. In the wrong hands, these numbers could be manipulated to affect elections and districting for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Congress has ordered that a fraud prevention system be put in place for the 2020 Census, but technology officers of the agency have said that this may not be up and running until just prior to the Census actually taking place.
The House Oversight Committee questioned these same officials about this issue specifically, asking, “How are you going to test something, and go live a month or two after that?” But the officials didn’t have an answer to that particular question.
Still later, it was discovered that Census Director John Thompson had contracted with a one-person headhunting firm run by one of his friends to look for a new person to run the 2020 Census. To do this in secret, he corresponded with the firm using his personal email, rather than his government account. He even got the firm to mislabel the job so it wouldn’t raise any red flags.
Eventually, the above misconduct was reported in the press, and the Commerce Department, which oversees the agency, conducted a probe into no-bid consulting contracts awarded to third-parties via “noncompetitive” procedures.
The media had to issue FOIA requests to access documents related to this consulting. But even prior to that happening, a number of the whistleblowers for some of the above issues had been let go by the agency. Perhaps as a result of what they reported, one of the former Inspector Generals in the IG office, Todd Zinser, was forced to resign, and at least one of the heads of the agency’s six regional offices was transferred to another location.
Given the mess that this agency has been under Obama, it should be an urgent priority of President-E Trump and his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to clean house and make sure that the agency is ridden of the waste, fraud and abuse that’s been endemic under Obama.
Secondly, it’s important that the agency is funded to the point where the data it collects can be deemed trustworthy and reliable. Too much of the government’s (and voters’) priorities are riding on these numbers for them to be vague or inaccurate.
~ Conservative Zone