Government

Iowa probe finds thousands of 'guard cards' wrongly issued

Linn County episode triggers state auditor investigation

State Auditor Rob Sand (left) on Thursday discusses results of a special investigation his office conducted, along with the state Department of Public Safety, that resulted in a department employee being fired after it was determined that at least 5,817 “guard card” licenses were issued on behalf of private investigators, security guards or other uniformed personnel they employed without documentation of required nationwide background checks. Also pictured at Thursday’s news conference in the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines are Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens and two employees in the State Auditor’s Office, Annette Campbell and Melissa Finestead. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
State Auditor Rob Sand (left) on Thursday discusses results of a special investigation his office conducted, along with the state Department of Public Safety, that resulted in a department employee being fired after it was determined that at least 5,817 “guard card” licenses were issued on behalf of private investigators, security guards or other uniformed personnel they employed without documentation of required nationwide background checks. Also pictured at Thursday’s news conference in the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines are Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens and two employees in the State Auditor’s Office, Annette Campbell and Melissa Finestead. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Questions that arose when a man carrying a state-issued security ID tried to get a weapons permit from Linn County despite an extensive criminal history led to revelations a state employee oversaw the distribution of at least 5,817 “guard card” licenses in Iowa without ensuring the required background checks were conducted, the state auditor reported Thursday.

State Auditor Rob Sand and Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens told a joint news conference that now-fired state employee Joe Sheehan Jr. failed to make sure required procedures were performed before issuing the licenses on behalf of private investigators, private security guards and bail enforcement agents popularly known as bounty hunters.

Nationwide and Iowa background checks, which are supposed to be conducted on each application, are used to discover whether the applicants have criminal convictions for aggravated misdemeanors or felonies that would disqualify them.

A special investigation examined the roughly two-year period from July 1, 2016, to Aug. 15, 2018. Sand said his agency determined that 5,817 licenses were inappropriately issued during that time period.

Since then, Sand and Bayens said they have been able to establish the validity of all but 598, and that 20 to 25 licenses that had been given state approval were revoked due to improper procedures or disqualifying criminal convictions.

Some of the licenses, good for two years, also expired in the period.

Officials said that because of insufficient documentation, it was not possible to say if Sheehan had also performed Iowa background checks before issuing provisional licenses.

“The Iowa Department of Public Safety holds the public’s trust in extreme regard,” Bayens told reporters. “When an employee allegedly engages in conduct that tarnishes that trust, we take it seriously. Once the Department of Public Safety discovered the conduct identified in the auditor’s report today, we took swift action to investigate and remedy what had occurred.”

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Sheehan was placed on leave Aug. 16, 2018, and terminated Nov. 6, 2018, according to documents released in the special investigation.

He could not be reached for comment.

Sand said there was no evidence of any financial impropriety, and Bayens said the matter has been referred to the Polk County Attorney’s Office for further review and possible legal action.

“As of now, we have resolved 90 percent of those permits in question and anticipate resolving the remaining 10 percent in the next 60 to 75 days,” said Bayens.

“The Department of Public Safety is unaware of any situation where an individual was harmed as a result of this,” he added.

The commissioner said his agency adopted recommendations by the auditor to strengthen the licensing system with “stop gaps and fail safes” to remove potential vulnerabilities and ensure more than one person is involving in the permitting process.

Sheehan was responsible for collecting fees associated with the licenses and depositing them with the administrative staff, Sand said.

However, there were not adequate records available to compare collections received with collections recorded for the licenses. As a result, he said, it was not possible to determine if all collections received were properly deposited.

Sheehan began employment with the state Department of Public Safety as a temporary clerk specialist in the Program Services Bureau on Dec. 6, 2004. He became a permanent, full time employee in April 2005 and continued with the agency until he was fired. As a clerk specialist in the Program Services Bureau, he was responsible for the issuance of licenses to private investigation, private security, and bail enforcement agencies and individuals employed by the agencies, according to the special audit report. State records show he was paid $47,094 in fiscal 2018.

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The three types of licenses issued to individuals are commonly referred to as “guard cards” by staff.

While the guard cards do not confer the applicant with a weapons permit, it was a man with an active guard card trying to get a permit that triggered the investigation.

According to the audit report, the individual on Aug. 14, 2018, applied to the Linn County Sheriff’s Office for a permit.

The applicant had an “extensive history of criminal convictions outside of Iowa which should have prevented him from obtaining a guard card,” the report said. A representative of the Sheriff’s Office called an agent of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to determine why the applicant was allowed to have a guard card — triggering the broader investigation.

“Due to the concerns identified by the former bureau chief, Mr. Sheehan was placed on paid administrative leave on Aug. 16, 2018. On Aug. 22, 2018, the Office of Auditor of State was notified of the irregularities. As a result, we performed procedures detailed in the Auditor of State’s report for the period July 1, 2016, through Aug. 15, 2018; on Nov. 6, 2018, Mr. Sheehan was terminated from employment,” according to the report.

• Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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