Former Census Bureau Supervisor Corroborates Whistleblowers’ Fraud Allegations
February 9, 2021
BY MARK SAXENMEYER
A former U.S. Census Bureau supervisor in the Chicago region has contacted The Reporters Inc. to corroborate the veracity of fraud allegations three former Census Bureau employees outlined in a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. government. The Reporters Inc. published details of the whistleblowers’ assertions in January.
Charles Betterton, who spent 16 months working with the Census as a Supervisory Partnership Specialist based in the Chicago Regional office, said, “Unfortunately, I have to confirm the claims made by the three other former Census Bureau employees.” He agreed with the whistleblowers’ statements that a practice of procuring false Census partnerships had occurred in parts of the region.
Betterton continued, “I was compelled to respond to the story because I knew it to be true, and I knew that it would quite possibly reflect negatively on the Census Bureau and the dedicated accomplishments of most employees. Of course, I was and am concerned about any possible impact on the credibility of the Bureau and the accuracy of the 2020 Census.”
The whistleblowers are former Wisconsin Partnership Specialists, hired in May 2019 to (as part of their duties) recruit “partners” for the 2020 count. For eight months, the specialists said they traveled the state, encouraging local governments, individuals, organizations and companies to sign up as partners an effort that resulted in hundreds of partnerships. Partners are needed because they help recruit even more people to fill out the Census questionnaire. For example, the new partners might agree to put up posters in their workplace, to discuss the Census in meetings, or to hold a patriotic rally.
However, in January 2020, the whistleblowers said the Census Bureau’s regional leadership in Chicago revealed details of a new, super-charged plan they called “Operation Push 2-4”–a strategy designed to rapidly boost partnerships. They said all 20 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.
The whistleblowers said they were told to simply fill out an online form with the contact information of whomever they deemed should be a partner. They claim they were told to sign partners up without notifying them or asking for their permission. “We were building an illusion of support that wasn’t real,” the whistleblowers said.
The whistleblowers said they were also told to sign their phony partners up for imaginary events (hanging signs, holding a rally, etc.). In addition, they allege other Census workers would then confirm that each event had been “held,” once their forms were submitted to them.
“Our concerns about these new orders went unheard,” the whistleblowers said. “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.”
Betterton, who had more than 12 years of prior civil service management experience before joining the Census Bureau, confirmed to The Reporters Inc., “The practice of adding partners without any communication with them was totally inconsistent with every directive we received as partnership specialists and coordinators from national leadership. Any directives to deviate from approved procedures would have had to be made by supervisors or managers in the Region.”
Betterton described his rank in the Census hierarchy as “one level of management above the Partnership Specialist.” He continued, “I was responsible part of the time for managing up to 13 Partnership Specialists in Indiana and four in Arkansas for a few weeks. In neither of those positions was I aware of any specialist I supervised reporting inaccurate information on partners.” Betterton did not directly supervise any of the three Wisconsin-based Partnership Specialists who filed the whistleblower complaint but knew of the directives they had been told to follow.
In March 2020, 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,” the whistleblowers stated.
“Today, the three of us from the Wisconsin team are haunted by the deception,” the whistleblowers said. “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.”
In late December, the three former Census workers decided to file a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. government, one that promised their identities will remain confidential. They presented a detailed accounting of the false partnerships.
Although the Reporters Inc. reached out to Census officials for comment prior to our January report detailing the whistleblowers allegations, they did not provide a statement until a day after our story was published. In it, they stated, “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 were also contacted by the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General after our report was published. The email they received reads, “The Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General (OIG) has received your correspondence and reviewed the information you provided… 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.”
The whistleblowers say they’ve heard nothing further from either the Commerce OIG or Census Bureau management.
In response to further questions about Operation Push 2-4, Betterton told The Reporters Inc., “For various reasons, I would prefer to wait and answer this initially with the Inspector General or Bureau management from headquarters.” He said he has contacted the Commerce OIG and the Census national management team indicating a willingness to be interviewed for their investigation, but has not yet heard back from them. “My larger mission is to help facilitate the truth being revealed and corrective measures being taken,” he stated.
Four days after The Reporters Inc. published its initial report with the whistleblowers’ claims, U.S. Census Bureau National Director Steven Dillingham announced his resignation. It came after the Commerce Department OIG sent a memo alleging that Dillingham was pressuring Census employees to rush a technical data report on the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country. The now-scrapped technical report was related to an executive order former President Donald Trump issued in July 2019 that sought to obtain citizenship data through government records, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that the administration could not include a citizenship question on the Census count.
When The Reporters Inc. again reached out to Census and Commerce officials, after Betterton came forward to confirm the whistleblowers’ allegations, officials re-stated the same response they provided to us in January (above).
Betterton said he believes the Census owes an apology to taxpayers, the workers who were forced to create the phony partnerships, and the individuals, organizations and companies listed as partners without their permission. As for whether or not Census managers responsible for Operation Push 2-4 should face any disciplinary repercussions, he stated, “I would leave that to the individuals with authority to determine what if any actions might be warranted, especially since many of the supervisory and management staff are still employed with the Bureau.”
“Faith in the Census is built on making sure that it’s fair, truthful and accurate,” the whistleblowers said. 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.”
Mark Saxenmeyer is the Executive Director of The Reporters Inc. You can read more about him here. Mark discussed details of this report with Wisconsin’s WCLO 1230 am. You can listen to the interview here. Mark can be reached at .
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