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Audit: Some felons got IDs to work for Iowa security firms

State Auditor Rob Sand said his office's investigation found lax oversight of security workers who hold positions of trust and work with law enforcement to ensure public safety.

Posted: Aug 22, 2019 8:46 AM
Updated: Aug 22, 2019 1:20 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa agency granted professional licenses to more than 5,800 private security workers without conducting mandatory criminal background checks, including at least two dozen who had records that should have disqualified them, auditors said Thursday.

Ineligible applicants received licenses to work as private investigators, bail enforcement officers and security guards because an Iowa Department of Public Safety employee failed to ensure that they passed national background checks, as required, state auditors found.

Since the problems were discovered a year ago, the department has revoked about 25 licenses that were granted to people who had felony or aggravated misdemeanor convictions that should have disqualified them under Iowa law, Commissioner Stephan Bayens said.

Nearly 600 other current license holders still haven't undergone FBI background checks, and the department is working to get those completed in coming months, he said at a news conference. Thousands of others were granted licenses without proper scrutiny but have since passed background checks.

State officials did not immediately release a list of those whose licenses had been revoked, but Bayens said the department was unaware of any violent crimes that stemmed from their employment.

State Auditor Rob Sand said his office's investigation found lax oversight of security workers who hold positions of trust and work with law enforcement to ensure public safety.

"Those individuals were able to be employed despite no background check having been conducted," he said.

Iowa law requires anyone who operates a private security business to obtain a license from the department, and their employees must apply for ID cards and carry them while on duty. To be eligible, applicants are required to be at least 18 years old, have no prior felony or aggravated misdemeanor convictions, and have no history of alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness or violence.

Applicants first face an Iowa-specific background investigation. If they pass, their fingerprints are sent to the FBI for a nationwide check.

Bayens said a department clerk responsible for issuing licenses, Joseph Sheehan Jr., conducted the Iowa background checks and rejected those who failed. But he then often failed to submit their fingerprints for the FBI check even though he indicated in some internal records that he had. Bayens said he didn't want to speculate as to Sheehan's motivation, but investigators have not found evidence that Sheehan received any improper financial benefit.

The audit found that 5,817 private security licenses were granted from July 2016 through August 2018 without the required national background check. It's likely even more licenses were improperly granted in previous years but that investigators didn't look farther back, according to the report.

Sheehan, who had worked full-time for the department since 2005, was fired last November for several policy violations. Two listed phone numbers for Sheehan, 60, had been disconnected.

The problems were exposed after a security guard with an extensive criminal history from other states applied for a gun permit in Linn County. A sheriff's deputy told a state agent that the man should not have qualified for his security guard license, given his past.

The agent reported the concerns to the department's Program Services Bureau, which oversees the security licenses and found discrepancies in how Sheehan handled the application. The department launched an investigation and Sheehan was placed on leave in August 2018. The department began completing national background checks on thousands of licensees and asked the auditor's office to investigate.

The audit found that the department had failed to ensure that companies were promptly returning revoked licenses as required by Iowa code, which means that some ineligible workers may still be using them. The licenses also do not have an expiration date, which the department should consider changing, auditors said.

The findings of the criminal investigation have been turned over to Polk County Attorney John Sarcone's office. Sarcone said the matter remains under investigation and no charges have been filed.

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