U.S. Census Bureau Denies Whistleblowers’ Claims of Fraud
BY MARK SAXENMEYER
A year after The Reporters Inc. began investigating claims by three whistleblowers that the validity of the 2020 U.S. Census may have been compromised by “systematic cheating,” the Census has responded with 88 pages of documents refuting the allegations.
At the same time, one of the whistleblowers, former Census Partnership Specialist Jerry Huffman, has decided to publicly reveal his identity, in a new, first-person account for The Reporters Inc.
In January 2021, The Reporters Inc. first reported Huffman and the other whistleblowers’ anonymous claims that their Census bosses ordered them to file phony documentation regarding the creation of Census “Partners” or “Partnerships.” Huffman says these orders should deeply concern the American public about the integrity of the Census and its 2020 results.
By definition, Census Partners can be businesses or nonprofits, churches or school districts, tycoons or the guy next door. Once signed up by Partnership Specialists like Huffman, 2020 Partners agreed to recruit more people to fill out the Census questionnaire. The Partnerships were designed to encourage and persuade groups and communities—who might be wary of the Census or mistrust the government—to participate.
But Huffman claims he and his fellow whistleblowers were asked to create and register false or nonexistent Partners solely to “convince politicians and the public that there was record-setting support for the Census, when there may not have been.”
Because the Census count ascertains population size, it can lead to a redrawing of Congressional, state and local district boundaries, and determine how much funding a community receives for new roads, schools, hospitals, programs, etc. “Yet in my mind,” Huffman writes, “Questions still remain whether it all was done honestly and ethically.”
In January 2021, a Census spokesperson told The Reporters Inc. that the Census “will give its full cooperation to any inquiry or investigation. The Census Bureau takes falsification allegations seriously.”
A month later, in February 2021, Charles Betterton, a former U.S. Census Bureau supervisor in the Chicago region, contacted The Reporters Inc. to corroborate the veracity of the fraud allegations brought by the Census Bureau whistleblowers. “I was compelled to respond to the story,” Betterton said, “because I knew it to be true, and…I was and am concerned about any possible impact on the credibility of the Bureau and the accuracy of the 2020 Census.”
(Left/Top) Whistleblower and Former U.S. Census Bureau Partnership Specialist Jerry Huffman and (Right/Bottom) Former U.S. Census Bureau Supervisor Charles Betterton
On December 2, 2021, Huffman and the other two whistleblowers received an email from the “Compliance and Ethics Staff” of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), notifying them that their case had been “closed.” No further details or reason was given but the staff instructed the whistleblowers that they could file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for more information.
In early April 2022, The Reporters Inc. requested interviews with several Census officials that both Huffman and Betterton said had knowledge of the alleged fraud, but none responded. On April 5, 2022, we filed a FOIA request with the Commerce Department’s OIG seeking to obtain all records indicating how the whistleblowers’ complaint was handled, all research, and all investigative contacts and conclusions.
A month later, on May 3, 2022, the OIG responded, providing us with 88 pages of documents, but stated that some of the information in the pages had been redacted to protect law enforcement information, or to prevent the disclosure of information that “could constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
An undated memorandum included in the FOIA documents—from the Human Resources Division of the U.S. Census to the OIG—states that an inquiry into the whistleblowers’ complaint was conducted by the Chicago Regional Census Center (CRCC), consisting of interviews and statements from current and former employees who had “relevant knowledge and information.” The memorandum informs the OIG that “The investigation disclosed (that) all interviewees attested that teams were never directed nor communicated to enter fictitious information in CRM (the Census’ Customer Relations Management system). However, it was clear that a few…provided conflicting procedural guidance…which caused confusion among some…on state teams.”
The memorandum concludes, “Based on the findings, the allegations (of the whistleblowers) are unsubstantiated and we do not recommend taking any further action regarding this matter.”
Statements from a Census memorandum denying the whistleblowers’ allegations.
In response to the OIG’s FOIA response, Huffman says, “To me, the conclusions in the FOIA documents have virtually no credibility. The Inspector General asked the Census Bureau to investigate itself. To treat this as an objective review of their own work is just plain silly.”
Betterton says, “Based on my experience, it was ridiculous and a dereliction of duty for the OIG to delegate responsibility for investigating the complaint—that is essentially against the Chicago Regional Census Office—to the leadership of that office.”
* * * * *
Huffman and the other two whistleblowers first lodged their complaint about the Census on December 23, 2020, identifying themselves as former United States government employees. (They were hired by the Census in May 2019.) The complaint stated that “the entire management team” of the Census in the Midwest region (consisting of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) was involved in impropriety related to the procurement of Census “Partners.”
According to a March 2021 memorandum from the Chicago Regional Census Center, a 2020 Census Partner was defined as “any organization making at least one commitment and/or hosting at least one event in support of the 2020 Census.” Partners could include school districts, city council members, state agencies like DMVs, faith based groups, etc. Those Census employees assigned to creating Partnerships, such as the whistleblowers, were called “Partnership Specialists.” They were employed as part of the Census’ “2020 Partnership Program,” designed to inform the public about the importance of the Census and ultimately increase Census participation.
Details about the Census Bureau’s Partnership Program can be found on its website.
The whistleblower complaint, as written by Huffman, described a Census assignment called “Operation Push 2-4.” It was created by managers in Chicago, he wrote, in which each Partnership Specialist “was ordered to create ghost Partnership agreements and events to boost Partnership participation numbers.” According to the complaint, the assignment was announced on January 6, 2020 and “ran for two weeks” from late January 2020 into early February 2020. (The name Operation Push 2-4 referred to the end date—month and day—of the assignment, February 4, or “2-4.”)
“We believe an ethical standard of honesty in our work was shattered,” Huffman wrote in the complaint. “We were assigned to create ghost Partnerships and events. Our credibility with the public was destroyed by this operation as we were told not to disclose the new Partnership agreements with the Partner. And if we protested, we were given the choice to either proceed or quit.”
Huffman also wrote, “Fear of losing our jobs does not justify our lack of judgment. And for that…we are sorry.”
Huffman also provided specifics. “We were told to fill out the internal Partnership form for people we could link to the Census, regardless of whether we had spoken with them about becoming a Partner…the only way we could remove someone from the Partnership database was if they asked to be taken off. An unlikely request, since most were not aware they ever were Partners.”
Huffman and the other two whistleblowers are from, and worked in, Wisconsin, under the purview of the Census’ Chicago Regional Office. Their complaint clarified that their concerns were limited to their personal Census experiences as Partnership specialists, although they insisted that other specialists working throughout the Midwest region “were involved in the operation” as well
The complaint continued, “Our supervisors engaged in a systematic plan to have us enter thousands of pieces of fictitious information into the Customer Relations Management program (CRM) that tracks all Partners. All to create an illusion of support that was greatly exaggerated if not fabricated.
“The potential fraudulent numbers are massive…We believe the leadership of the 2020 Census created Operations Push 2-4 as part of a fraudulent attempt to convince the public and Congress there was record-setting support for the Census.”
The complaint claimed that each employee assigned to Operations Push 2-4 “was expected to create a minimum of 40 new Partners daily. If we didn’t have any new Partnership candidates, we were ordered to choose others from contact lists.”
Huffman and the other two whistleblowers demanded that the Census issue “a full public disclosure or apology” and that Partnership agreements should be reviewed and examined to identify the ones that were “fake.”
After learning of the whistleblowers’ complaint, Betterton shared similar stories with The Reporters Inc. He specifically recalls when he discovered that all members of a County Board in Illinois had been added as Partners “even though the County was not at that time a Partner.” Betterton says he reported that situation to his supervisor and the Partnership Coordinator assigned to the area but “corrective measures were not taken.”
* * * * *
On December 28, 2020, five days after filing the whistleblower complaint, Huffman was contacted by the OIG, asking if he would waive confidentiality so that “officials within the Department of Commerce…can then reach out to you for further information.” By remaining confidential,” the OIG email stated, “we may be more limited in our ability to fully address your concerns.”
Huffman and the other two whistleblowers declined the invitation in an email a day later, stating, “Since no one has had a chance to do even a minimal review of our allegations, waiving confidentiality at this point seems premature. If there is a point where knowing any of our identities would be critical, we would be happy to reconsider our decision.”
(Top) At the start of the investigation into Whistleblower Huffman’s complaint, he was asked if he would waive his confidentiality. (Bottom) Huffman declined, calling that notion “premature.”
On January 15, 2021, a day after The Reporters Inc. published the whistleblowers’ allegations, they heard from the OIG again: “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.”
But neither Huffman, nor the other two whistleblowers—nor former Chicago region Census supervisor Betterton—were ever contacted by the OIG again, never asked for further information, and never asked to answer questions that could have aided or better informed the OIG’s investigation.
Betterton says, “I contacted the OIG online and by phone, offering to share my comments on the details included in the article by The Reporters Inc. In addition, I sent email messages and left voice mail messages with two individuals in Headquarters that I believed would be interested in helping address the concerns raised in the whistleblowers’ complaint. I never heard back from anyone, nor was I contacted by anyone from the Chicago Region.”
In response to an August 29, 2022 query by The Reporters Inc. to the Department of Commerce OIG, we were told that because the “administrative inquiry” into the whistleblowers’ complaint was conducted by the Census Bureau itself, and because “the Bureau never indicated to OIG that knowing the complainant’s identity was critical to their inquiry,” the Bureau never requested that OIG contact the complainant for a “reconsideration of their confidentiality.” The Reporters Inc. posed the same query, and others, to the Census Bureau; on September 2, 2022 a Bureau spokesperson from the Freedom of Information Branch Policy Coordination Office responded, “The FOIA Office is processing your request. Currently, we are unable to give you a time frame as to when the response will be available.”
* * * * *
In the FOIA documents released to The Reporters Inc., a memorandum dated March 10, 2021 from the U.S. Department of Commerce/Chicago Regional Census Center to the OIG (in response to the whistleblowers’ complaint), states, “The Chicago Region was tasked with securing a minimum of 39,433 Partners by March 1, 2020.To ensure the validity of Partners entered into the Census system, “Partnership Clerks were required to randomly call Partners down our list…to verify their validity with any suspect entries immediately questioned and deleted if necessary.”
The memorandum also states that in December 2020, “The Chicago region sent electronic and physical thank you certificates to over 43,000 Partners on file…the Region did not receive a single email or notification that someone had received a certificate in error or without knowing why they had received this acknowledgement. This speaks to the overwhelming efforts made by the Chicago Region’s Partnership Coordinators to ensure the validity and veracity of our Partnership outreach program.”
Also among the documents given to The Reporters Inc. was a multi-page “personal statement” (dated June 28, 2021) from someone (name redacted) who seems to be closely connected with the management of Operation Push 2-4. In it, the individual states, “The allegations (of the whistleblowers) …are inflammatorily negligent and baseless in fact—false in their description of directives and activities, and false in alleged intent and purpose of the mission itself. Indeed, the only fact that seems to be correct in the entire complaint is the name of the campaign (Operation Push 2-4)…The fact that an invisible complainant is alleging ‘ghost Partnership agreements’ is at the height of irony, which would be amusing, if not so maliciously conspired.”
Comments from a multi-page “personal statement,” submitted by a Census manager in response to the whistleblowers’ allegations.
The individual goes on to say, “This anonymous complainant has been everything but invisible” and implies that he/she knows who the complainant is, stating that the complainant was voicing “grievance” to “Partnership staff” over not having been selected to continue “working for an extended service period. Only after not being kept on the Partnership rolls did this complainant begin contacting other staff to reframe the narrative of Push 2-4, taking bits and pieces of facts to form the allegations enclosed.”
After reading the entire 88-page Census response to The Reporters Inc., Huffman believes the writer of this memorandum is mistaking someone else as the complainant, insisting that neither he nor the other two actual whistleblowers who filed the complaint fit the writer’s descriptions. He adds, “The fact that almost all of their comments were personal insults instead of professional observations speaks volumes to their real motivation.”
The June 28, 2021 “personal statement” goes on to say that “contention and resentment” arose with “more than one state coordinator” who felt “usurped in their management roles” after leaders were named for Operation Push 2-4. “There were at least two (redacted) who, it appeared, were intentionally sabotaging cohesiveness by miscommunicating information, inflaming misunderstanding, and taking a very hands-off approach to encouraging cooperation on our teams.”
The statement author also writes that he/she learned that, in response to some Operation Push 2-4 staffers’ questions, they were told, “just shut-up and do it if they valued their jobs,” confirming one of the whistleblowers’ allegations. “Framing Push 2-4 in these terms, undoubtedly stoked concerns,” the individual writes.
On this point, Betterton agrees with the statement author. “Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible that Partnership Specialists in the Chicago Region could have been told this by their supervisor,” he says. “Even those of us who served as Supervisory Partnership Specialists were occasionally threatened with termination or told something like ‘get with the program and follow directions or resign’.”
The statement writer goes on to address each of the whistleblowers’ allegations directly. As for their claim that there was a systematic plan to enter fictitious information in the Customer Relations Management program (CRM), the individual implies that the whistleblowers may be mistaken—that while the “fictitious” Partners might not have been known to the whistleblowers, they were definitely known to other staff. “A critical component of Push 2-4 was for…staff to share the responsibility of data entry equally. That meant that Partnership staff from one state were absolutely responsible for helping to enter Partners from the other seven states in the Region.”
Comments from a Census official, denying there was a systematic plan to enter fictitious information.
Again, Betterton agrees. “It’s accurate that Partnership staff including Specialists, clerks, and Coordinators were assigned to help enter Partners from other states in the Region,” he says. “That’s because some states had fallen behind other states and, as a result, their staffs were asked to help when and where needed.
Yet in the anonymous report that Huffman wrote for The Reporters Inc. in January 2021, he stated, “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.”
As for the whistleblowers’ claim that they were required to create a minimum of 40 new Partners daily, and to choose Partners from “contact lists” provided to them if they didn’t have enough of their own candidates, the statement writer says “Partner creation” was a “technical term” that referred to the process of creating an entry into CRM—not to creating false Partners, and not to adding Partners without their knowledge. The statement writer insists that the contact lists the whistleblowers were given contained names and information about Partners that other staff members had already procured and registered.
Comments from a Census official, denying the creation of false Partners.
Betterton backed up the statement writer on this point as well. “To some extent, I can verify that it’s accurate information that Specialists had mandatory requirements to add a minimum number of Partners and that they may have been provided names and information about Partners that other staff members had already lined up and confirmed.”
Betterton adds, “For example, my supervisor travelled widely throughout the Region and generally only she and the Regional Director represented the Regional Office in meetings with high level officials such as Governors, U.S. Senators and Representatives, Mayors of major cities, etc. I am personally aware of instances when my supervisor would ask staff members to enter details of legitimate Partners she had recruited in CRM. I have no knowledge of the process of assigning staff from one state to enter data from another state including anything inappropriate or inconsistent with established policies and procedures.”
The statement writer concludes their comments by stating, “Again, miscommunication by…staff regarding instructions during Push 2-4, appears to be the root cause for the grievances during this campaign.”
In response, Huffman says, “Dismissing our concerns in the report as not understanding the rules is as simplistic as it is insulting.”
* * * * *
Another memorandum to the OIG from the Chicago Regional Census Center, dated September 1, 2021, and also in response to the whistleblowers’ claims, states, “What was clear from the investigation is that a few state Coordinators and/or Senior Partnership Specialists (team Leads) provided conflicting procedural guidance in carrying out Push 2-4, both in terms of Partner definitions, outreach, and CRM entry, that caused confusion amongst some of the state teams.”
This memorandum from Census investigators admits that poor communication from leaders caused confusion for some Partnership Specialists.
The memorandum then admits that between November 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, “regions were required to validate Partner entries, verifying organization address and all contact details. During this process, more than 10,000 emails were returned as undeliverable…” Yet the memorandum insists that many of those undeliverable entries were from up to 10 years prior, and that the people associated with them had likely changed jobs and thus, email addresses.
This memorandum admits that more than 10,000 Partner emails were returned as undeliverable during a Partner verification and validation process.
Betterton responds, “I retired from the Census Bureau on September 26, 2020 when my temporary assignment ended, so the reported print and digital verification activities occurred after my tenure. However, it was widely known that there were major problems with the contact records in CRM. In fact, the Chicago Regional Office received thousands of letters marked ‘Addressee Unknown’ or something similar, mostly in response to mail that had been sent to residents from Headquarters presumably based on addresses in CRM. When I asked my supervisor repeatedly what to do with those returned letters that had been given to me by the mail room staff, I was instructed to ‘hide them.’ In addition, my repeated suggestions—supported by other management staff—that we at least conduct a mail and phone campaign to verify accuracy of all the contact information in CRM…were ignored.”
The September 2021 memorandum then states that 50,433 known Partners in the Chicago region were emailed thank-yous (not “over 43,000 as the March 2021 memorandum states), resulting in “thousands of undeliverable emails that needed to be updated in CRM.” Yet the memorandum finds nothing worrisome or suspicious about the undelivered emails.
This September 2021 memorandum expresses no concern about thousands of undeliverable emails, after thank you messages were sent out to Partners.
The memorandum then cites an undated “independent effort to validate the Partnerships,” an effort that revealed just 90 entries in the Chicago region required validation. And only two of those 90 remained unverified, the memorandum concludes, and were thus deleted from CRM.
The memorandum concludes, “Therefore it is recommended that this case be closed.”
In this memorandum, the Census investigators conclude that the whistleblowers’ claims have no merit.
* * * * *
In March 2020, a month and a half after Operation Push 2-4 ended, U.S. Census officials trumpeted their national success: their ambitious goal of forming 300,000 partnering organizations had been achieved. But Huffman insisted at the time, “On paper, it looked like a fantastic accomplishment but those of us who falsely created most of these Partnerships knew otherwise.”
The Partnerships issue, however, isn’t the only one plaguing the 2020 Census. Surveys showed that as many as four in 10 adults were unwilling to take the Census. In fact, other reports at the time indicated that as many as four million Americans might not be represented in the 2020 census. Some simply didn’t believe the Census would protect their personal information, because they didn’t trust the government.
This was troubling for several reasons. Aside from apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Census provides the statistical basis for many governmental funding decisions for the next decade. Each year, roughly $1.5 trillion in federal funds get redistributed according to Census data.
Then, politics took a front seat when the Trump Administration tried to add citizenship questions to the Census survey. Its efforts were eventually rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, describing the administration’s action as contrived. In July 2022, internal documents released by the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee detailed the “secret strategy” behind Trump’s Census citizenship question push. It was meant to try to alter the population numbers used to divide up seats in Congress and the Electoral College.
In the fall of 2020, some demographers warned that the Census would be incomplete or erroneous when the Trump administration then decided it would slash a full month from the typical two-plus months allotted to following up with households that didn’t respond to the survey. An estimated 60 million Americans had yet to be counted when that decision was made.
Trump also shortened the “clean-up” period that followed, during which the Bureau reviews its information for accuracy and removes duplicate counts. That process normally takes five months; this time around, the bureau had only three to complete it. As Politico reported in September 2020, “Throw in a continued effort by the administration to come up with a separate count of undocumented immigrants that could be used to exclude them from the numbers used for redistricting, as well as the first time the Census is integrating online-collected data into the in-person count, and you can begin to see the predicament.”
Congress is currently considering a new bill that could help the 2030 Census avoid meddling and interference from future presidential administrations.
William H. Frey, a University of Michigan demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Politico, “It has a pretty good chance of being the least accurate” Census in modern memory. This may be enough of a brush with catastrophe that people will realize we don’t want to get this close to it again.”
Sure enough, in March 2022, The Census Bureau admitted it had missed counting Hispanics, Blacks and other minority groups and overcounted Whites and Asians. Most significantly, as much as 5 percent of all Hispanics weren’t counted. Undercounts mean not only less political representation for those groups, but also fewer resources going to those communities.
As of early June 2022, according to the Pew Research Center, more than two dozen localities have filed administrative challenges to the Census numbers, and more are also expected to file objections or even lawsuits. Austin, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan, are among the largest local governments to officially question their Census counts, and more could join before the June 2023 deadline.
Betterton points out that the Census may have undercounted the population of Illinois by 2 percent in 2020. “And that’s ironic to me,” he says, “given that the state had more Partnership Specialists and Coordinators assigned to it than any other in the Region to help ensure an accurate and complete count, especially of the historically undercounted populations.”
Betterton continues, “If individuals were listed as Partners who weren’t actually engaged in Census supportive activities, that could be one reason to account for any undercount.”
* * * * *
In August 2022, The Reporters Inc. emailed several follow-up questions to U.S. Census Bureau officials, for additional comment about the 88-page FOIA document we received in response to the whistleblowers’ complaint. Among them: “Are you planning on changing, updating, fine-tuning, etc. the Partnerships program in any way for the next Census?” And “Did your investigation into the whistleblowers’ claims prompt changes in any way?” As of September 8, 2022, we have yet to receive a response.
“We still believe in the Census,” Huffman told The Reporters Inc. in January 2021. “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.”
The false Partnerships he says—and still insists—that he and the other whistleblowers were asked to create built a kind of undeserved clout for the Census.
“Faith in the Census is dependent on making sure that it’s fair, truthful and accurate,” Huffman wrote. “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 on our Team Page. He can be reached at
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