Census Whistleblower Goes Public
What Happens When You Blow the Whistle, but Nobody Listens
BY JERRY HUFFMAN
They were words I had heard before. From presidents to governors to local city council members — all taking the Oath of Office: “…to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
But this time, I was the one holding up my right hand and repeating the same words. It was May 2019 and I, along with about a dozen other soon-to-be-colleagues, was taking the same oath of office to become a Partnership Specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau.
For me, taking the oath was highly emotional. It was my first job where I had to pledge before God and country that I would do my very best. My heart was pounding as I said those 34 words.
The job was straightforward. Partnership Specialists were tasked with recruiting and signing up partnersfor the 2020 count. Partners could be individuals, organizations or companies, and they were needed because they helped and recruited even more people to fill out the Census questionnaire.
For example, they might agree to put up posters in their workplace, discuss the Census in meetings, or hold a patriotic rally. All Partnership Specialists were expected to recruit groups in both the private and public sectors to be part of the Census. If a major employer could be convinced to support the Census, they could reach thousands of their employees with a single e-message. If a local coffee shop would hang pro-Census posters in their windows even more people would see positive messages.
Jerry Huffman on the town square of rural Belleville, Wisconsin in 2020. “We distributed thousands of pieces of Census materials,” he says of his time as a Partnership Specialist. “Our number one mission was to remind people of the importance of the Census.”
I was assigned several counties in Central and Southwestern Wisconsin. We scheduled our own appointments with community leaders and I lost track of the number of city council and county boards I addressed on the merits of an accurate Census. But it was a story to tell. Among other things, an accurate census can financially help a community.
Breakfast meetings were often followed by afternoon sessions with school principals, media editorial boards and veterans’ groups. We went where the people were. All with the intent of recruiting them to support the Census.
Still, no matter how many groups we talked to there would always be someone who hated the idea of an all-encompassing Census. Immigrants were reluctant to come out of the shadows over fear of getting deported. Maybe someone had a warrant buried in their past. Thousands of others lived off the grid because they simply didn’t want the government to find them.
Information that we collected, by federal law, could not be shared with anyone else or any other agency. If we did, we were looking at serious time in federal prison. Yet people had a hard time believing us because we were, in fact, feds.
We would always explain to them that federal funding is divided partially based on local population. The larger your population, the more federal dollars earmarked for schools, roads, senior lunch programs and dozens of other programs in your area. But If everyone isn’t counted, you could end up with less money.
The job was great. I enjoyed it for the first seven months. I personally recruited hundreds of new Partners for the Census. Yet little did I know I’d soon be instructed to create hundreds of phony Partners as well.
In December 2019, all of the Partnership Specialists in Wisconsin were called to Chicago to be briefed on a new assignment called “Operation Push 2-4,” designed to increase Partnerships during a super-charged period starting in late January 2020.
In theory, it was a great idea. But in practice, some of us believed the Census management team was pushing shortcuts that could call the entire Partnership program into doubt.
We were told that, instead of making the Partnership pitch as part of an in-person presentation, we were now expected simply to call potential Partners and ask them to sign up. The topper was that we were expected to land around 40 new Partners a day. That worked out to about 12 minutes per call, assuming someone would drop everything the moment we rang.
Then came the second phase of Operation Push 2-4. One morning we were told it was no longer necessary to tell potential Partners they had just joined Team Census. If we thought the local town clerk, for example, might be a good Partner we should just go ahead and sign ’em up.
“Without asking them first?” I asked a boss.
“Correct,” she said.
“What if a person really isn’t interested?“ I asked the same boss.
“If they complain, take them off the list,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“But if we don’t tell them they’re on the list, how can they ask to be taken off?”
They couldn’t. And that was the point to the exercise. Once we signed them up they were pretty much locked in as Partners.
The boss then made it clear that any of us who were unhappy with the new strategy were welcome to resign.
At least three of us in the room were aghast, but none of us could afford to quit what was a well-paying job—one that on the good days we could actually see making a difference.
After busting our backsides for months to get accurate county-by-county numbers, it felt like our leadership team was undermining the credibility of the effort.
In our opinion, we were being asked to cook the books. And if Wisconsin was doing it, odds are the other 49 states—and a few territories—were doing the same thing.
The three of us decided we needed to blow the whistle—to become actual federal whistleblowers—by filing a formal complaint. We felt this was the best way to report the wrongdoing of our management team, and still be protected from retaliation.
In the complaint, filed on December 23, 2020, we asked that the entire Wisconsin team be kept on long enough to verify its own Partnership records, so we’d be certain that the Wisconsin books would be on-the-level.
In less than two pages, we laid out the details of what transpired with Operation Push 2-4, why we thought it was fundamentally flawed, and why it risked the agency’s reputation.
The first page of Huffman’s whistleblower complaint.
In the end, I’m the only one who signed his name (my two fellow whistleblowers requested anonymity) but the complaint application still offered me confidentiality as well. I thought that by signing my name, it’d be harder to ignore or dismiss the complaint.
Within days, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) asked me to waive confidentiality so that higher ups within the Commerce Department could then reach out to me for further information. Translation:Forget that pesky confidentiality promise we made you. Tell us who you are and then we can have our agency call you. Doesn’t that sound easier?
My reply: No, thanks.
As a result, neither I nor the other two whistleblowers were ever asked for further information, and never asked to answer questions that could have aided or better informed the OIG’s investigation. Even though they had my contact information, without relinquishing confidentiality they had no follow ups. In January 2021,
On December 2, 2021, nearly a year after we filed our complaint, I received an email from the OIG notifying me that the case had been “closed.” No further reason was given. The Reporters Inc. then decided to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get details about the OIG’s investigation.
In May of 2022, I read the Department of Commerce’s 88-pages (as compared to our two-page report) of documents, reports and interviews that it released to The Reporters Inc. in response to its FOIA request. It’s worth noting that only seven of those 88 pages were released in full. The others were redacted to various levels.
As The Reporters Inc. explains in its new, in-depth report, the Census vehemently disagreed with the allegations in our complaint letter. The FOIA documents present a narrative designed to defend Operation Push 2-4, not assess its performance.
Much of the OIG’s investigation consisted of interviews with unidentified supervisors and others from the Census’ Midwest regional office—all of whom felt that the Operation Push 2-4 project was a rousing success, and none of whom said they were encouraged to find, or file, false Partnerships.
On one document there’s a checklist that asks if the Complainant (me) was interviewed and “no” is checked. But again, no one asked me for an interview. If they’d requested one after our initial complaint had been—at the very least—preliminarily investigated, l would have likely said yes. But I wasn’t going to give up my confidentiality until I had assurances that the complaint was being taken seriously, and that I wasn’t opening myself up to some kind of reprisal.
This checklist was part of the Census’ investigation, indicating that neither Huffman nor any other witnesses were interviewed as part of its inquiry.
It appears to me as if the OIG’s investigation served mainly as a tool for the managers interviewed to show their support of the Bureau’s efforts. One apparent supervisor who was interviewed (name redacted) calls our whistleblower report inflammatory, negligent, and baseless. That same person also complains about Census workers who, after a management briefing, asked questions about the direction of the team. This person also claims leaders in other states weren’t able to communicate the proper plan either.
In response to our complaint that we had to sign up Partners “whether we had even met the new Partner,” this same apparent manager calls that “a true statement, though I do not recall it being stated in those terms.” The individual goes on to write, “…meeting a Partner was not a required element in the definition of a Partner” and then describes unnamed “subcommittees” of people who did meet with all Census Partners.
The individual states that it was our duty, as Partnership Specialists, simply to document the Partners that the members of these subcommittees supposedly met and knew. “If a Partnership Specialist believed that meeting a Partner was the condition that legitimized Partnership formation,” the individual writes, “then it is easy to see how they could believe that many fraudulent Partnerships were being formed.”
Comments from a multi-page “personal statement,” submitted by a Census manager in response to Huffman’s allegations.
It appears to me that this supervisor is likely someone who has spent an entire career behind a desk, instead of in the field. And to dismiss our concerns in the report as not understanding the rules is as simplistic as it is insulting.
The FOIA also includes a September 2021 memorandum that states the 2020 Census resulted in more than 50,400 Partners in the Midwest region and that an “independent effort to validate the Partnerships” revealed just 90 entries required validation. Of those, only two remained unverified after the review, and were then erased from the record.
The Census’ Midwest region found that only 90 of more than 50,000 new Partners created during the 2020 Census required validation.
Let me see if I have this straight.
The Census claims to have validated over 50,000 Partnerships. Let’s say it spent an average of five minutes trying to validate each of the 50,000 Partners, with follow-up emails or phone calls. That would require thousands and thousands of worker hours.
And then, after all that validation work, the Census claims to have found just two Partners it couldn’t verify.
ONLY TWO out of more than 50,000?
To paraphrase the greatest philosophers in the world: Baloney.
In the end, the Census’ investigation into our complaint conceded nothing. To the investigators, it was a perfect program and we were throwing spitballs. Reading the FOIA documents, it seems to me like they were more interested in proving us wrong rather than considering we could be even partially correct.
Today, one of my fellow whistleblowers, who still chooses to remain anonymous, is back in college and studying for a PhD in Leadership. The other has moved on without a forwarding address. As for me, I’ve decided to reveal my name at this point because, prior to taking the temporary Census gig as a bridge to retirement, I was a television news producer for most of my career. I believe in watchdog journalism and there comes a time when people have to stand up and ask, “Why?”
When I think back to that oath I took, I wanted to be part of the Census because I truly felt that the work mattered. I wanted to be part of something that could make a difference in Wisconsin.
The official Census count found that Wisconsin’s population in 2020 is 5.89 million people. That’s up slightly from 5.68 million in 2010. These numbers translate into—if the theory holds—federal aid that communities statewide should receive and benefit from in the 10 years ahead.
Yet in my mind, questions still remain whether it all was done honestly and ethically. The Wisconsin Partnership Specialists with whom I worked for more than a year, worked with integrity. But I fear management was more focused on defending a flawed system, instead of guaranteeing an accurate 2020 Census.
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