The U.S. Postal Service inspector general officially cleared a prominent conservative research group of any wrongdoing for getting its hands on Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s complete and unredacted official personnel file last summer.
America Rising, a conservative opposition research group contracted by dozens of conservative PACs and campaign committees each election cycle to dig up dirt on Democratic candidates, went through the proper channels, submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for Spanberger’s file to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the IG concluded in its report released in late December.
NARA stores official personnel files for various government agencies, including the USPS, but it is up to government agencies to respond to the FOIA requests and redact certain protected information in the file NARA provides.
An administrative assistant in the USPS’ human resources department improperly executed that FOIA request by forwarding Spanberger’s entire file to America Rising, including a confidential national security form known as Standard Form 86 (SF-86) that she filled out when she was hired as a postal inspector in the early 2000s.
The same USPS HR administrative assistant improperly handled six other FOIA requests in addition to America Rising’s request for Spanberger’s file, the inspector general found.
The USPS had previously discovered three other improperly released personnel files before the IG audit.
The release of those files to third parties without authorization violated both federal law and USPS policy and “can lead to identity theft and [an employee] becoming a victim of financial fraud,” the IG report states.
The USPS HR department was ill-equipped to handle personnel file information requests, according to the report. It had no central list of FOIA requests to the agency, no written procedures for how requests were supposed to be handled and by whom, and never trained staff responsible for handling FOIA requests on how to comply with FOIA and the federal Privacy Act.
The top Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, and Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper asked the USPS IG in September to launch a probe into the matter.
Spanberger’s SF-86, like all such forms, included a questionnaire that contained her family and medical history, Social Security number and other highly sensitive information that U.S. intelligence officials must provide.
After obtaining Spanberger’s file, America Rising handed it off to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the preeminent House GOP leadership-linked super PAC.
CLF used information from that file in a series of attack ads against Spanberger, who defeated former Rep. Dave Brat in Virginia’s 7th District in November, flipping a seat from red to blue that had been in Republican hands for decades.
Spanberger disclosed on her SF-86 that she had worked as a substitute advance placement English teacher beginning in 2002 at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Mount Vernon, Virginia. The school, which is funded by the Saudi government, was thrust into the national spotlight in the mid-2000s and earned the nickname “Terror High” after the 2005 class valedictorian later admitted to joining al-Qaida and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for plotting to kill President George W. Bush.
CLF suggested in its ads that Spanberger was sympathetic to terrorist elements due to her stint at the school.
The New York Times reported in August that CLF had shared Spanberger’s file with an Associated Press reporter, who then shared it with Spanberger and revealed CLF as the source.
Spanberger’s campaign initially questioned whether CLF and America Rising had obtained her file through illicit means.
The day after the initial New York Times report, America Rising provided Roll Call with documentation showing that it had received the file in late June through a standard Freedom of Information Act request.
The IG report released last month confirms the authenticity of those documents.
“That the USPS has acknowledged this was an issue on their end is just further evidence that Abigail Spanberger wasn’t telling the truth when she falsely accused CLF of breaking the law and pitched a phony storyline to the New York Times,” CLF spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said at the time.
CLF declined to give a follow-up statement responding to the IG report.
The reports of Spanberger’s improper personnel file release shocked national security experts who have filed their own SF-86s and reviewed SF-86s of other government employees whom they have hired. The reports from the fallout ignited a debate about how political groups should handle government-confidential information they inadvertently get their hands on through clerical errors that were not necessarily their own doing.
The USPS has taken “initial corrective action” to ensure other employees' files go through the proper redaction in response to FOIA requests, the IG report stated. Internal corrective measures include “changing and documenting procedures for handling personnel information requests, establishing a correspondence log to track personnel information requests and responses, and providing FOIA and privacy training to [HR] staff,” according to the report.
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