Census Bureau Director Resigns Following Whistleblower Complaint

Census Whistleblowers

1/19/21 2:24 EST Update: On January 18, U.S. Census Bureau Director Dr. Steve Dillingham announced his resignation, ending his tenure nearly a year before the end of his term. His resignation comes less than a week after the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Commerce sent a letter to Dillingham outlining whistleblower complaints regarding the Census Bureau’s alleged prioritization of a technical report that includes data on documented and undocumented persons in the United States. 

Dillingham’s public resignation announcement made no reference to the whistleblower complaints, but on January 14 he responded to the Inspector General’s letter. In his response, Dillingham stated that he told those involved with the report to “stand down” and discontinue their data reviews. Dillingham denied that the report was the top priority of the Bureau, stating “The Census Bureau’s highest priority continues to be the production of a complete and accurate 2020 Census, which involves processing the data collected this past year and identifying and resolving issues. All Census reports will be consistent with the Census Bureau’s standards for data quality and integrity.”

Original Story Published 1/14/21

On January 12, Peggy E. Gustafson, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Commerce, sent a letter to Dr. Steven Dillingham, the Director of U.S. Census Bureau, inquiring about the alleged prioritization of a technical report that includes data on documented and undocumented persons in the United States. According to Gustafson, whistleblowers within the Census Bureau have raised concerns that figures with close ties to the Trump administration are pushing for the report to be swiftly completed, despite major issues with the data.

The report in question is related to Executive Order 13880. The Order, issued in July 2019, would remove undocumented immigrants from the census figure used to calculate how many seats each state gets in Congress. For example, if the estimated 2.2 million undocumented residents in California were excluded from the census figure used for reapportionment, the state could lose two or three seats in the House of Representatives. Exact data on the number of undocumented persons in each state needs to be available for the Order to go into effect. According to Gustafson, whistleblowers claim Dillingham made the production of a report with data on undocumented persons “a number one priority” within the Census Bureau. Dillingham had allegedly given a deadline of Friday, January 15, 2021, for the report and has allegedly inquired into financial awards to incentivize a speedy completion of the report.

In her letter, Gustafson says that “we also understand that two political appointees at the Bureau are the driving forces behind this work.” The political appointees in question, Nathaniel Cogley and Benjamin Overholt, “are allies of Stephen Miller, a top White House aide and one of the administration’s most influential policy hands who has driven Trump’s hard line against immigrants,” according to The Hill. Dillingham was also a Trump appointee.

According to Gustafson, whistleblowers have raised concerns about data issues and “believe this report is being rushed without legitimate reason and will result in an inferior Bureau product.” The whistleblowers, who are career employees of the Census Bureau, claim they have not been given “sufficient time to conduct their normal data quality checks.” They also raise several concerns about the data required for the report.

According to the whistleblowers, the Census Bureau has not established defined rules on how to categorize undocumented persons. In her letter, Gustafson writes that “without defined rules for how data is allocated among these categories, the accuracy and the integrity of the categorization is in question.” Additionally, whistleblowers have raised concerns that many of the data sets required for the report originate from outside the Bureau (the Supreme Court ruled against a Trump administration effort to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census). Whistleblowers claim that their unfamiliarity with the data sets “could lead to bias or mischaracterizations of the data.” Lastly, whistleblowers claim that “incomplete data could be misinterpreted, misused, or otherwise tarnish the Bureau’s reputation.” According to Gustafson, one senior Bureau official referred to the work for the report as “statistically indefensible.”

In her letter, Gustafson asks Dillingham 11 questions about the report and informs him that she expects completed responses to the questions by Thursday, January 14, 2021. Questions include “Will this report be consistent with Bureau standards for data quality and integrity? If not, why not?” and “Why is the report “a number one priority,” and, separately, who set the report as a priority for the Bureau?”

Offices of Inspectors General (OIGs) are tasked with ensuring the efficiency and efficacy of federal agencies and investigating allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse. There are currently 73 different OIGs across the federal government. Last year, two bills were introduced which would authorize federal funds to be used for maintaining Oversight.gov, a website that consolidates reports from the 73 OIGs.


Gustafson’s Letter to Dillingham

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