Broken background checks: How Ohio fails to protect the public

Posted at 6:05 PM, Nov 03, 2016

A background check is supposed to make sure a person is safe to work in your child’s school, your home, or care for your grandparents.

However, our exclusive On Your Side Investigation found serious flaws in Ohio’s background check system creating opportunities for dangerous offenders to slip through the cracks.


Deadly consequences


 “I don't want anybody else to wake up to the nightmare I woke up to,” Theresa Wallington said.

Her husband, Larry, was shot and killed by his co-worker in 2010. 

“Larry was a wonderful man,” she said. 


“A wonderful family man who deserved the opportunity to continue his life and due to background checks not being what they should be, he's gone,” Wallington said. 


Nathaniel A. Brown shot and killed Wallington, and injured another man, before turning his gun on himself at Ohio State University’s campus after learning he was about to be fired.

Photo courtesy: WBNS

Our On Your Side Investigation found Brown never should have been hired to work as a janitor at the school.

Brown went to prison after he was convicted of receiving stolen property in Stark County in 1979. 

However, the company the university hired to perform his background check failed to turn up his felony conviction. 


"People who work hard deserve to be able to go work and come home and feel safe,” said Wallington.



Trust Destroyed


Wallington’s case is not the only troubling example of what can happen when a background check fails to identify a dangerous person. 

Abulay Nian, 33, was convicted of raping the teenage sister of a developmentally disabled boy he cared for as a home health care worker for the now-defunct Atlas Home Health Care Inc. in April 2015.

He, too, never should have been hired. 

Nian was convicted of assaulting another woman in North Carolina in 2010. 

However, according to the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office, the company’s background check missed his previous conviction.

His victim’s mother declined an interview with On Your Side Investigators, but told us the company’s background check only reviewed his criminal record in Ohio. 


Ohio’s Broken System


The failures highlight why its critical background checks are reliable. 


“You would not hire somebody that's been incarcerated 10 years ago for starting fires to work at a fire department,” Chris Mabe said. 



Mabe is the President of the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association which represents more than 30,000 Ohio public sector workers, including employees who conduct background checks for state agencies and employers at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. 


“You would not hire somebody that's been incarcerated 10 years ago for starting fires to work at a fire department."

He’s sounding the alarm about the state’s system, which conducts background checks for state agencies and employers.  


“People need to be aware that the system is broken,” Mabe said.


A Pattern of Problems


Mabe blames the background checks problems on massive failures in the state’s technology and a need for additional staff to conduct the checks.

For example, Mabe said state workers are required to finish background checks in just three days, even though it can take longer to verify criminal convictions with local courts.

“We know that there are offenders who are making it into the system,” he said. 

He is most concerned about “safety sensitive” jobs, including police officers, fire, educators and home health care workers.


“It's the cable guy, it's the phone guy, it's all these people in society that we don't really realize that have touch in our home, and the criminal background system is supposed to keep us safe,” he said. 


Technology Troubles 


On Your Side Investigators obtained e-mails dating back to 2012 revealing chronic failures with the state’s background check technology system, known as CAFIS. 


CAFIS stands for 3M Cogent’s Automated Fingerprint and Palm Print Identification 

System.  3M Cogent is the vendor the state hired to implement and maintain the background check system. 



In June 10, 2014, an e-mail from written by an employee at the attorney general’s office describes how one of Ohio’s largest police departments was unable to send critical information to BCI. 


James Gregory, Director of Systems & Infrastructure for the attorney general’s office, wrote the “Cincinnati Police Department is having trouble getting connected to the BCI CAFIS.  This has apparently been going on since 2012.” 


One of most troubling failures occurred in 2015. 


When a worker in a safety sensitive position, like a teacher or foster parent, gets arrested, the system is supposed to immediately alert their employer through what’s known as the “Rapback” system.


But, in 2015, the system completely failed.


Its hardware couldn’t handle the number of arrest notifications it received.


So, for example, when Jason Rivers was arrested for raping a child on May 1, 2015, Rapback failed to alert Jefferson County Job and Family Services.


Rivers was a foster parent at the time. 


In total, Dan Tierney, Ohio Attorney General’s Office Spokesperson, said 658 arrests were missed, including notifications to the Ohio Department of Education, Ohio Department of Job & Family Services, Ohio Department of Public Safety, and the Casino Commission. 


Who’s to blame?


The Ohio Attorney General’s office sent a letter to 3M Cogent, demanding a $6.2 million credit for failing to provide adequate tech support. 


However, in a letter dated May 28, 2015, 3M Cogent’s U.S Sales and Marketing Manager, Angela B. Dreis, blamed the state for the system’s issues. 


Dreis wrote 3M Cogent advised the state to upgrade its system “for many years,” noting it was “deployed in 1997, but never upgraded.” 



Dreis also wrote “the state determined in 2011 . . . to assume the responsibility for most of the system hardware components within the AFIS system in exchange for a more economical cost structure. Many of the issues you are encountering pertain to these components, which belong to the State and are not within 

3M Cogent’s control or area of responsibility.” 


Background Check Expert Weighs In 


Mabe is not the only person concerned about the reliability of Ohio’s background check system. 


“It's riddled with false negatives and false positives,” said Jason Morris, a background check expert.


In 1999, Morris founded EmployeeScreenIQ, which was acquired by Sterling Talent Solutions last year.


Morris is also a licensed private investigator and a founding member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. 


When we asked him how well Ohio’s background system functions, he replied, “Not well at all. The fingerprinting system. . . is deeply flawed.” 


“It's not just the reliability of the information, it's the reliability of the network, and the structure and infrastructure of the system itself, and that's why the state largely wants to have the whole system refurbished,” he said.


OH BCI Superintendent Responds


“It probably works better than it's ever worked in its history,” said Tom Stickrath, Superintendent of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, about the state’s background check system.

“Other than we still have the same old system that we're completely re-doing,” he said.

After the Ohio Legislature approved money to upgrade the system, the Ohio Attorney General’s office dumped 3M Cogent, and accepted a bid from another company, NEC, earlier this year.

However, contract negotiations are ongoing and there is no firm deadline for the updated system to be put into place.

“Well, it will happen within the next couple of years,” Stickrath said. 

In the meantime, Stickrath disputes claims the system is “broken.” 

He said Ohioans can “absolutely” count on state background checks.

“I would say they're reliable,” Stickrath said.

“Are they perfect? No,” he said.

“Are they better than they’ve ever been? Yes,” he said.


The Snail Mail Struggle  


However, even new technology won’t fix one of the system’s oldest problems. 


The information in Ohio’s background check comes from the state’s approximately 950 law enforcement agencies and 600 courts. 


Each law enforcement agency is required to submit arrest records. Each court must submit conviction records. 


However, many of those submissions are still submitted by “snail mail.”


On Your Side Investigators found close to 800 law enforcement agencies and courts send updates through the mail, delaying the time it takes to enter the information into the state’s system, and leaving a window that could allow a dangerous offender to be hired at a safety sensitive job.


While Stickrath said he uses the “bully pulpit” to encourage cities and counties to submit records electronically, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office does not have the power to force a municipality to modernize its records system. 


Even more troubling, some agencies fail to do their part to make background checks accurate.


“Even with just submissions in general, I mean, even if it's electronic, sometimes we don't get submissions,” Stickrath said. 




The Uniformity Challenge 


“To make it reliable, in Ohio, specifically, all 88 counties in Ohio are going to need to be on the same system, the same format, have the same type of index, and allow that information to be purged into some sort of state repository on a fairly regular real-time basis,” said Jason Morris.


However, he said it’s “very unlikely” there will be uniformity in the system anytime soon. 


“We still have courts . . . that use card catalog systems and index books, whereas you have other courts that are a lot more sophisticated, and they're using online systems and they're scanning things and everything is electronic.  So until you have uniformity there, it's not happening,” he said. 


How difficult would it be? 


“So today (hypothetically) all 88 counties go electronic, then you have one day of data, you need to have it for, like, 7 years (for a reliable background check),” said Morris.