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County Passport Offices suspended over conflicting federal investigation

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Thousands of Collin County residents will need to look elsewhere to apply for U.S. Passports, after a local office of the U.S. State Department issued an indefinite suspension of the county's District Clerk from handling new applications.

District Clerk Lynne Finley says her office has been barred from accepting new applications because of a 5-year passport fraud investigation by State Department officials, despite the agency's own investigative arm having cleared the two passport offices she runs in Plano and McKinney.

The suspension by the Dallas Passport Agency, a subdivision of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, took effect in late December. Ms. Finley says that despite her office's cooperation and being cleared of any wrongdoing or procedural missteps, both of her passport offices have been shut down, and at least four employees' jobs are now at risk. Meanwhile, county residents must now make other arrangements at local post offices if they need passports for the upcoming travel season. 

"As soon as I learned of an investigation I reached out to the Diplomatic Security Service and after spending hours with the agents working on the investigation, the Dallas Passport Agency suspended our offices against the advice of DSS," Ms. Finley said. "We've done everything we possibly can do to cooperate and DSS found nothing wrong with the way we handle passport applications. The Dallas Passport Agency continues to treat us with contempt when we suggest improvements in the processes to try and prevent passport fraud. Collin County embraces change if it makes a process more effective, efficient and protects the integrity of the process."

The District Clerk's offices handled almost 40,000 passport applications in the past year, and is one of the largest passport acceptance facilities in North Texas, Ms. Finley says. The county collected more than $1 million last year in handling fees from the District Clerk's two walk-in offices, which went into the general fund for county services.

Ms. Finley says federal authorities have only told her that her office may have received one suspect passport application out of that 40,000, and exonerated her, her staff and the procedures they follow.

"No other counties' passport offices have been suspended in relation to this investigation that we're aware of," Ms. Finley said. "But this jeopardizes at least four of my employees' jobs if this needless suspension continues much longer." County residents must now make appointments at local post offices to file applications, or drive to another county's passport offices.

The root of the problem arose last December when Ms. Finley met with agents from the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service regarding a 5-year, multi-agency criminal investigation relating to passport fraud over documents dating back almost a decade. After an interview with two of Ms. Finley's clerks and checking the office's procedures, DSS agents exonerated Ms. Finley and her staff. In January, the DSS provided the Bureau of Consular Affairs with findings that exonerated the Collin County offices from their on-going investigation.

Despite repeated letters and pleas to various State Department agencies, Ms. Finley says the local Dallas Passport Agency still refuses to allow her to re-open her passport offices. Ms. Finley says her office is being retaliated against by the Dallas Passport Agency because she pointed out flaws in that agency's own procedures during the DSS investigation. She says the Dallas agency counters that she is in violation of their rules, but has refused to specify what violations, if any, have been noted.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs has failed to respond to Collin County's repeated requests to re-open with no explanation, Ms. Finley says, and questions from Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, have also been brushed aside by the State Department. 

"When a federal agency refuses to answer questions of any kind to our Senators, Congressman and elected officials tasked with running a Passport Acceptance Program, clearly there is no oversight," Ms. Finley said. "When a federal agency refuses to answer questions of any kind to our Senators, Congressman and elected officials tasked with running a Passport Acceptance Program, clearly there is no oversight or accountability.

"It is a shame that Collin County residents are going to be greatly inconvenienced and I may lose some very competent employees through no fault of their own but we need to evoke change in this process and hold the State Department accountable for these failings."