A Reporters Inc. Exclusive
Whistleblowers allege U.S. Census Demanded Workers File Phony Documentation
January 14, 2021
UPDATE 1/18/21: The U.S. Census Bureau provided The Reporters Inc. with a statement on January 15, one day after we published this report. Additionally, the whistleblowers who wrote this article were contacted by the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General on January 15 as well. Both responses appear at the end of this article.
Whistleblowers are rarely treated as saints. Often harassed by managers or co-workers and labeled as troublemakers, people who file whistleblower complaints are sometimes driven from their jobs. The three former U.S. Census Bureau workers who wrote this report are requesting anonymity for those very reasons. We understand and respect their concerns due to the seriousness and importance of their allegations. We’ve verified the lead writer’s identity and confirmed that all three worked for the Census Bureau during the time the allegations presented in this piece occurred.
By Constitutional mandate, every 10 years America counts itself. As most people understand, the U.S. Census is an official, complete tally of the country’s population. If you’ve filled out the questionnaire yourself, or answered the questions from workers at your front door, you know that it includes details about age, race, gender, and the number of people living in your home.
The significance of the Census is many-fold, but perhaps its most important role is to determine how the 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be divided among the 50 states. Unlike Senate seats, of which each state has two, a state’s number of House seats is determined by its population. The count can therefore lead to a redrawing of Congressional, state and local district boundaries and is instrumental in determining the need for new roads, schools and hospitals, as well as the distribution of nearly $700 billion in federal funds.
As three new Wisconsin Partnership Specialists for the Census Bureau, hired in May 2019, part of our job was to recruit what are called “partners” for the 2020 count. As Census workers, we also took an oath to support and defend the Constitution–meaning we pledged to conduct ourselves with honesty and integrity as we went about the government’s business.
For eight months, we traveled the state encouraging local governments to become partners and we did it well, signing up hundreds of individuals, organizations, and companies–as did the rest of our 20-member team. Partners are needed because they’re an important part of the Census process. They help and recruit even more people to fill out the questionnaire. For example, they might agree to putting up posters in their workplace, discussing the Census in meetings, or holding a patriotic rally.
It doesn’t cost anything to be a partner. Nor are they paid. Census Bureau officials would argue that it’s prestigious to be part of something so important for the country. A partner can be a corporate tycoon or the guy next door. If you help the Bureau get people to fill out the questionnaire you are, in turn, helping your nation.
In fact, partnerships are an integral part of the Census strategy. Our given goal was to obtain a 100 percent response rate–something that would take more effort than just outreach and far more publicity than the best advertising and public relations campaigns the Census could muster. It would take partnerships–hundreds of thousands of them.
Partnerships are especially important because surveys have shown as many as four in 10 adults are unwilling to take the Census. In fact, other reports indicate as many as four million Americans many not be represented in the 2020 census. Many simply don’t believe the Census will protect their personal information because they don’t trust the government.
For example, one of the toughest public presentations we made was to a local chapter of the NAACP. Despite our efforts to convince them otherwise, the crowd was adamant that Census employees worked hand-in-glove with law enforcement to turn over private information.
And they weren’t alone.
Many local elected officials and private citizens we reached out to routinely questioned the line between privacy and politics within the 2020 Census and skeptically asked why they should work for free to help the government.
Making matters more difficult, politics took the front seat when the Trump Administration tried to add citizenship questions to the survey. Its ham-fisted efforts were eventually rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, describing the administration’s action as contrived.
Eight months into the job, the Census Bureau’s regional leadership in Chicago revealed to us details of a new super-charged boosting plan they called “Operation Push 2-4” — a strategy designed to rapidly boost partnerships. All of the Wisconsin Partnership Specialists, as well as the specialists in seven other Midwestern states, were told of the plan. Beginning in January 2020, for a period of two weeks, each specialist was instructed to “create” a minimum of 40 new partners a day.
“Creating” a partner was easy. No more traversing our assigned territories to find new partners. Instead, we were told to simply fill out an online form with the contact info of whomever we deemed should be a partner and–voila–they were a partner. We were told to sign them up without notifying them or asking for their permission. Simply by filling out a form, Census partnerships could be created out of thin air.
We were told to look at every city, town, and village in our territories. If a community seemed interested, sign up the mayor. Then add local councils or board members. We were literally copying names and numbers from phone lists. Under this new plan, we were told to sign up anyone who was likely to be a potential partner. Again, asking for their permission was considered to be too time consuming.
Besides the obvious impropriety of this, the metrics of the assignment were problematic as well. Finding 40 partners a day, during an eight-hour shift, meant we had about 12 minutes on average to pick a name, fill out the form, and file it. The only way to remove someone from the partnership database was if they asked. An unlikely scenario, since virtually none of them knew they’d been registered in the first place. Across eight states, specialists were creating ghost partnerships that existed only on paper. We were building an illusion of support that wasn’t real.
The potential numbers of these fake partnerships are massive. If every Specialist did what was asked, it would amount to 800 new partners a day for the Wisconsin team and 800 more for each of the other states. Add to that, each new partner was also supposed to hold a pro-Census event. It could be anything from hanging signs to holding a rally. We signed them up for the events as well. Of course, none of these events were real, even after other Census workers confirmed each event had been “held” once our forms were submitted to them.
So, what was the point of creating these phony partnerships, if they weren’t actually doing anything to promote the Census to people with doubts or concerns? Likely, it was to meet Congressional mandates for the projects. Additionally, the three of us believe the leadership of the 2020 Census created Operation Push 2-4 as part of an attempt to convince politicians and the public that there was record-setting support for the Census–when there may not have been.
Last March, a month and a half after the Specialists’ phony partnership push ended, Census officials trumpeted their success: their ambitious goal of forming 300,000 partnering organizations had been achieved. On paper, it looked like a fantastic accomplishment–but those of us who falsely created these partnerships knew otherwise.
Looking at the Operation Push 2-4 plan now, it’s easy to draw comparisons to the strategy of the 2016 Wells Fargo account fraud scandal, during which employees opened a record number of accounts in customers names, without their knowledge. Wells Fargo wanted more accounts in an attempt to increase revenue from the fees associated with those accounts. Census officials weren’t making money off Operation Push 2-4, but they were building a kind of undeserved clout.
Today, the three of us from the Wisconsin team are haunted by the deception. Although we did take pride in the fact that we pushed local governments to become legitimate partners, once we were ordered to create fake partners to push the numbers even higher, frustrations grew.
Our complaints about these new orders went unheard. Supervisors told us to quit complaining or leave. Like millions of others facing imminent job loss because of the pandemic, we put our heads down and did as we were told. Admittedly, it was not our finest hour.
In late December, the three of us decided to file a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. government, one that promises our identities will remain confidential. You can find the forms online for every agency in the U.S. Answer a handful of questions and attach anything that supports your complaint. We presented a detailed accounting of the false partnerships.
We received this immediate response (see below) from the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General office once we hit “send.”
We assumed there would be a way to track progress but the response clearly stated, “Due to privacy interests, we do not provide complainants with updates on, or the results of, complaints and/or investigative matters.”
Five days later, however, we did receive an email from someone identifying herself only as Emily from the Compliance and Ethics Staff of the Office of Inspector General. She told us that “your submission is currently under review” and then added, “by remaining confidential, we may be more limited in our ability to fully address your concerns. By waiving confidentiality, we can provide the details of your complaint to officials within the Department of Commerce who can then reach out to you for further information, if necessary.”
We responded, “Since no one has had a chance yet to conduct even a minimal review of our allegations, waiving confidentiality at this point seems premature. If there comes a point where knowing any of our identities would be critical, we would be happy to reconsider our decision.”
We haven’t heard back from Emily or anyone else from the government since.
We still believe in the Census. A full and complete accounting of America’s population most definitely benefits communities and the country. But claims of record partnerships are, at best, exaggerations. At worst, they’re an exercise in systematic cheating.
Faith in the Census is built on making sure that it’s fair, truthful and accurate. Our experiences, however, have shattered that faith. And if the partnerships we sought out are meant to help persuade the concerned and the wary of the Census’ overall trustworthiness and legitimacy, the fraudulent nature of those partnerships will, unfortunately, result in just the opposite.
Editor’s Note: The Reporters Inc. reached out to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Chicago-based regional director several times for comment, beginning on January 8. We also communicated with two Census public information officers, both of whom promised a statement in response to the claims made in this report, by the morning of January 13.
However, no response had been provided to us when we published this report on January 14.
UPDATE 1/18/21: The U.S. Census Bureau provided The Reporters Inc. with a statement on January 15, one day after we published this report. It reads, in its entirety:
The Census Bureau has quality checks in place to ensure that new partnerships created are legitimate. Our quality control mechanisms are in place to identify errors that are not congruent with our stated polices.
The Census Bureau cannot comment on any ongoing personnel matter and will give its full cooperation to any inquiry or investigation. The Census Bureau takes falsification allegations seriously and does not tolerate fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or retaliation against employees who do the right thing and report that behavior.
Additionally, the whistleblowers who wrote this article were contacted by the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General on January 15 as well. The email they received reads, in its entirety:
The Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General (OIG) has received your correspondence and reviewed the information you provided. We have assigned complaint number (omitted by The Reporters Inc.).
After careful consideration, we decided to refer your allegations(s) to management officials at the U.S. Census Bureau. We have requested that they conduct a thorough and independent inquiry and provide a response to us, including a detailed explanation of their review process and any corrective action, if any, they take as a result. Upon receipt of their response, we will review it and may seek additional information if necessary.
If you have any further information, please contact the Hotline at (800) 424-5197 and reference the report number assigned when you initiated the complaint.
Compliance and Ethics Staff
Office of Inspector General
The Reporters Inc. will continue to follow this story and provide updates when merited.
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