Baltimore County background check system poses security risks, inspector general finds

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Gaps in Baltimore County’s system for reviewing employee criminal and financial records mean some employees have never had a background check while others have been charged with crimes that have gone unreported to the county, according to a review by the county’s inspector general.

The result, Inspector General Kelly Madigan wrote, is that county may not know about employees facing criminal charges or who pose a financial risk. Madigan’s report recommended the county require updated background checks when employees are promoted or transferred, conduct annual checks on a random sample of employees to ensure they self-report criminal activity and reduce the current COVID-related backlog of background checks.

The investigation stemmed from a complaint submitted to the IG’s office last year that the county employed a person with a felony conviction in a position that required that employee to interact with the public in and around private residences.

The IG’s office found 1,188 current non-law enforcement employees were hired before 2008 when the county’s Employment Background Program was established, and were not required to undergo a criminal history check. That’s more than one-third of the county’s non-law enforcement workforce.

Employees within the county police and fire departments, State’s Attorney Office, Emergency Communications Center, Department of Corrections, Sheriff’s Office or court-related positions, undergo more stringent background checks than other county employees and were not part of the inspector general review.

The report also found the county has conditionally-hired numerous “unvetted” employees whose background checks are currently mired in a “significant backlog” amid the coronavirus pandemic, Madigan wrote.

The county could not immediately confirm how many employees were currently working without being screened for prior criminal history Thursday afternoon.

In a random sampling of 300 employees, Madigan found that 20 of them — 11 of whom were hired without a background check — had criminal charges; some of which resulted in convictions for assault, battery, robbery, driving while intoxicated and illegally possessing a handgun, she wrote.

The report did not include employees arrested for minor crimes such as trespassing or some traffic-related offenses.

Even more employees had significant financial problems: defaulting on credit obligations, filing for bankruptcy protection or state, federal or court-related liens filed against them.

Madigan wrote there is no process to identify employees who may pose a security risk because of past or current financial problems. In the IG’s survey of 300 employees, more than a quarter have at least one “significant financial issue” in their background, many of which occurred while employed by the county.

The absence of a financial background check opens the door for employees who may be evading taxes, defaulting on creditors or filing for bankruptcy to be hired in positions “where they have access to sensitive data, process or manage financial information, or are entrusted with the county’s physical assets,” Madigan wrote.

All told, a third of the 300 employees surveyed had either a criminal charge, faced a significant financial issue, or both, according to the report. But under the county’s Employment Background Program, “none of these risk factors were required to be reported,” Madigan wrote.

Although the county drafted a policy in 2019 to require employees (other than sworn police officers) self-report any arrests or charges against them since they’d been hired, the policy has never been implemented, the report found.

Absent of that, Madigan wrote, the county “would only learn about such conduct through public sources of information.”

One person interviewed during the investigation, for instance, said they learned about a county employee who was arrested for possessing child pornography by seeing it on the news, according to the report.

The Baltimore County Police Department conducts background checks, but for several months has lacked the resources needed to process applicant fingerprints, according to the report. With a need to quickly hire staff in positions like contract tracers (who are meant to alert people who were exposed to COVID-19), the county has been hiring employees under the condition that they may be terminated if something disparaging turns up in their background check, when it is eventually conducted.

The report concludes that the lack of oversight of employees’ criminal and financial records is a security risk.

In a written response, county administrative officer Stacy Rogers wrote that the county for many years “did not follow industry best practices in conducting criminal background checks for staff,” and that background checks were not routinely conducted for all employees under previous administrations.

Now, she said, the county intends to include funding in its fiscal 2023 budget to perform background checks for all promotional candidates. The county’s also working with Maryland State Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to clear the backlog of background checks to expand the county’s capacity to perform them, county spokesman Sean Naron said.

The county will not, however, conduct random or annual background checks as Madigan recommended; Rogers wrote no other “comparable” jurisdiction conducts such reviews and that the county doesn’t have the resources to do so. The Society of Human Resources Management, Rogers said, recommends against background checks for current employees unless there is “reasonable cause.”

Rogers wrote she would discuss other recommendations, such as performing financial background checks, with the law office and the Society of Human Resources Management.

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