How many people using false identities have been employed by the Defense Department? Are some illegal aliens?
As of now, the government does not have definitive answers to these questions.
Unfortunately, they need to be asked because, on March 29, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Social Security Administration published an audit report revealing that Defense, plus the Coast Guard (which is a component of the Department of Homeland Security), filed nearly 6,400 W-2 forms between 1997 and 2002 that could not be matched to known taxpayers and thus had to be dumped into what SSA calls the Earnings Suspense File (ESF).
Sixty-four percent of the bad W-2 forms discovered by the auditors were for military employees on active duty or in reserve status. The other 36 percent were for civilian employees.
Although the report did not address the immigration status of the Defense employees for whom the bad W-2s were filed, the SSA has earlier indicated that the hiring of illegal aliens is the primary reason employers in the private sector file W-2s that cannot be matched to a known worker.
To be sure, the audit discovered that some of the bad DOD W-2s could be attributed to innocuous causes, including typos and data-entry mistakes. "However," the report said, "it is also possible that individuals employed at the DOD components were not using their own SSN and, as a result, these components may have employed individuals whose true identity cannot be verified/confirmed by the SSN they are using."
For example, 3,585 DOD W-2s bore valid SSNs but different names than those to which the SSNs had been issued. The auditors examined a sample of 60 of these. On six, it appeared the person on the W-2 had changed his or her name and failed to notify SSA. On 10, it appeared there were "typographical or formatting errors." But on the remaining 44, said the report, "the first and last names reported by the DOD components were completely different from the names associated with the SSNs shown in SSA records. ... We believe these wage items need further investigation to determine if the wage earners deliberately used SSNs that belong to others or whether these were simply reporting errors."
Another 832 W-2s had "invalid SSNs" never issued by SSA. Among these, 344 "were reported with numbers that resemble an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) ... a 9-digit number that begins with a ?9' and is issued by the IRS to non-citizens who need tax identification numbers for tax purposes and who otherwise do not meet the requirements for being assigned an SSN."
One DOD W-2 used the SSN of a worker who died in 1942. In another case, a man dishonorably discharged from the Army used his son's SSN to re-enlist.
In recommending that SSA always notify DOD when DOD files bad W-2s, the report said: "Since the DOD components employ individuals who are in positions of trust and who may have access to national security information, it is essential that they are notified about the wage reporting problems."
To be fair, DOD filed bad W-2s at a much lower rate than the private-sector companies that SSA has determined rank among the nation's top 100 worst filers of bad W-2s. An OIG report I discussed in this space last week listed an unnamed Illinois company as the No. 1 filer of bad W-2s between 1997 and 2001. That company filed 131,991 bad W-2s, which equaled 11.68 percent of all W-2s it filed in that period. DOD's 6,400 bad W-2s comprised only about 0.024 percent of the approximately 26 million it filed from 1997 to 2002.
Nonetheless, allowing hundreds, or even thousands, of unknown workers to gain employment at a government agency charged with defending the nation in a war against terrorists is unacceptable.
The courageous Americans who put their lives at risk to serve our nation deserve to know that our elected officials, and the political appointees they put in place, have taken every step possible to determine the true identity of all the military personnel they serve with and all the civilian Defense employees whose job it is to serve them.
With a little diligence, Defense and the Coast Guard could have eliminated their bad W-2s. SSA provides an Employer Verification Service that will check the validity of any new employee's SSN for any employer. The service will verify up to five SSNs by phone, 50 by letter, and an unlimited number for employers who register with the agency and provide magnetic tapes of SSNs needing verification.
The Air Force at some point stopped using the service. The Coast Guard does not appear to have ever registered for it. "(W)e could not find evidence that the Air Force or Coast Guard were verifying their employees' names and SSNs," said the report.
Following its inspector general's recommendation, SSA "initiated a process with each (services') DFAS (Defense Finance and Accounting Service) representative to investigate their ESF items."
So far, attention to this does not appear to have trickled very far up in DOD. Responding by email to my inquiries, DOD spokesperson Lt. Col. Roseann Lynch said: "There is no ongoing IG (inspector general) action related to this. I have also checked with DFAS and the comptroller's office. The response was the same." In a subsequent email, she said: "We have no indication this report has been received by the Department of Defense."
Hopefully, in the end, the vast majority of DOD's bad W-2s will be attributed to innocuous causes. But right now, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld needs to make certain every single one of them is investigated and accounted for.