Federal employees in debt can lose security clearance

Unless you are the president.

President Trump — privy to the nation’s most precious secrets — the vice president and members of Congress aren’t subjected to the same background investigation many federal workers must endure to get or keep jobs. Those jobs are with organizations that do sensitive work, but the people are not necessarily spies, intelligence analysts or in high-level positions. They can be receptionists and office workers.

Whatever position, they must have their finances under control in the eyes of agency decision-makers. Being hundreds of millions of dollars in debt certainly would raise countless red flags. But not for Trump.

The president’s “finances are under stress, beset by losses and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt coming due that he has personally guaranteed,” according a New York Times article pegging his debt at $421 million.

Security clearances have been denied to regular employees and contractors for much less. Their stories reflect the financial difficulties that can hit even in the best of times. Reports from the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals, which considers security clearance contractor cases from dozens of agencies, provide these details, but no names.

●A 51-year-old married office manager with two adult children had a security clearance since 1988. She earned about $80,000 annually. Because of admitted poor judgment and setting her own bills aside while she helped family members, she accumulated $51,000 in debt, including $12,000 in federal taxes.

The debt concern “is broader than the possibility that a person might knowingly compromise classified information to raise money,” wrote Noreen A. Lynch, an administrative judge in the office manager’s case. Quoting government guidelines, Lynch said “failure to live within one’s means, satisfy debts, and meet financial obligations may indicate poor self-control, lack of judgment, or unwillingness to abide by rules and regulations, all of which can raise questions about an individual’s reliability, trustworthiness, and ability to protect classified or sensitive information…. An individual who is financially overextended is at greater risk of having to engage in illegal or otherwise questionable acts to generate funds.”

Regarding the office manager, Lynch’s December 2019 report said “she loves her job and wishes to continue” with her employer of 20 years.

That’s nice, but not enough.

“I conclude that it is not clearly consistent with the national interest to continue Applicant’s eligibility for access to classified information,” Lynch declared. “Clearance is denied.”

●A 47-year-old Army veteran, married with five kids, lost his lucrative employment because he wanted to help his cousin. With his wife’s income, they earned well over $200,000 annually and paid their bills on time. Then the father decided to co-sign student loans for his low-credit-rated cousin — not once, not twice, but three times.

The rest you can guess. The cousin didn’t pay the debt, so the father, a project manager with a defense contractor, was stuck with the bills. He refused to pay, until it was too late — a decision he regrets.

“I lost a substantial amount of money because that happened,” he said at a hearing. “I mean, in retrospect I would have just paid it.”

His interim security clearance was revoked in June 2019. A February 2020 decision by Administrative Judge Pamela C. Benson upheld his denial to classified information access.

“His unwillingness to make good-faith efforts to repay the charged-off student loans when he has the financial means to do so shows he cannot always be trusted to fulfill his promises,” Benson wrote.

●A 42-year-old mother of three and her husband suffered unemployment and financial trouble so great they moved to another state to live with her parents. Over a three-year period, she accumulated more than $30,000 in debt from credit cards and car loans and had one vehicle repossessed.

Apparently, there was little evidence in her favor as she sought a security clearance. When “evaluating the very limited evidence in the record in the context of the whole person, I conclude Applicant has not mitigated the security concerns raised by her delinquent debts,” Administrative Judge John Bayard Glendon wrote in his January decision.

With more than 4 million citizens holding security clearances at the “secret” level or above, not all with financial ills are rejected.

A 44-year-old security receptionist, married with an adult daughter, was granted access to classified information in January. Unemployment and underemployment left her owing $47,600 to several sources and a car that was voluntarily repossessed.

But an administrative judge, Mark Harvey, found her efforts to resolve her delinquent debts “sufficient to mitigate financial considerations security concerns… Applicant understands how to budget and what she needs to do to establish and maintain her financial responsibility.” Harvey granted the receptionist access to classified information.

Many stories don’t have a happy ending. One person had to abandon his life’s work after years of graduate study to prepare for a job with the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was denied security clearance because of his massive student loans — even though he’s not delinquent on those loans.

He declined to be named but was open about his feelings: “I’m definitely bitter.”

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