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Federal Eye: Interior Dept. Bungles Passport Records

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.

“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 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.

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