Criminals Off the Record: Flaws in the state background-check system


Accurate and complete criminal background information keeps Ohio families and their children safe.

But a joint investigation from 10 Investigates and the Columbus Dispatch reveals that the system keeping track of these criminals repeatedly breaks down, causing fingerprints to slip through the cracks for months and hundreds of criminals to be misidentified.

Criminal records are maintained by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) - which is part of the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

10 Investigates obtained three years of email and IT records after reporting last year that school districts were not being notified about school bus drivers’ criminal records.

The emails show BCI employees and supervisors have been frustrated because they say the computer system is outdated and ill-equipped to handle the workload. We found phrases including "widespread issue" "getting ugly" and THIS IS STILL HAPPENING" all in caps - in these emails.

Those in charge call this vital system "cobbled together."

Police officers make life and death decisions based on the criminal background check information that originates from this system. Guns are also approved for purchase based on records in this system.

“I don't want to get a call at 2 in the morning of a fellow officer who has been involved in a situation because he or she couldn't take the proper precautions because they simply didn't know the subject had a felony warrant out for their arrest,” said Sgt. Vincent Shirey, of the Ohio State Highway Patrol: "

State records show the problems became severe in the fall 2012.

“We currently are not sending any transactions to the FBI, nor are we able to receive transactions from them or Livescan transactions from agencies,” said BCI Deputy Superintendent Steven Raubenolt wrote IT. “Why was action not taken earlier to avoid this?”

It was fixed the next day, but the fixes proved to be only temporary.

By spring of 2013 – just a few months later - the system that holds fingerprints overflowed - blocking thousands of criminal records from getting into the state’s database.

And 1,432 transactions from 99 agencies could not be added into the Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS) for six months. Law enforcement access information from LEADS every time they stop a vehicle, question a suspect, or charge a suspect.

“Cogent also said the malfunction was due to the AG hardware failure,” Raubenolt wrote to IT officials in July 2013. “You should know that many of the deleted transactions can’t be resubmitted by the agencies, resulting is a lot criminal arrest.”

Some police agencies including Ohio State Highway Patrol said they never knew fingerprints weren't accepted. They said the Ohio Attorney General's Office didn't tell them.

Senior staff from BCI and the Attorney General’s office meet to determine what could be done to fix the system and prevent such a problem from happening again. Among four key recommendations was a system that would catch any fingerprints if the system overloaded again.

The cost for such a system? About $162,000, state records show.

That project, though, was cancelled in 2014.

Murnieks said the office invested in new servers that are designed to prevent such a problem. Officials had discovered the servers were “prone to random issues which require full AFIS restarts to correct.”

She added that all records that were missing were recovered.

However, state records show that problems persisted in 2014.

In October 2014, BCI supervisor wrote that problems were causing wrong information to be sent to employers, though it’s unclear if the root problem was the same as BCI & I employees experienced before.

“Everyone on my staff is having this happen at different times. It is causing us to have to spend time double checking work and there are also times when someone misses that a rapsheet is incorrect and it gets mailed to an employer,” the supervisor wrote.

Then in an email from December 2014, a BCI supervisor contacted IT saying that some records dating back to June weren’t processing.

“The longer these go unattended the less chance we have of obtaining that print from Law Enforcement if the transaction cannot be fixed. This could mean that a person who committed a felony offense will not have this on their record,” Conchita Matson wrote.

Who are these criminals? We'd like to tell you - but the Ohio Attorney General's Office won't say.

The Attorney General's Office won't reveal who they initially tagged as safe - only to realize they missed their criminal record. They blacked out three years worth of names – or approximately 1,100 apparent names of misidentified criminals.

Attorney General officials defended the system. Problems are occasional, but most mistakes are operator error and blames law enforcement and the courts for sending bad fingerprints.

Whatever the reasons, the office confirmed staff informed employers 195 times in 2014 that wrong information was released.

In addition to criminal names, the AG's Office also would not reveal what public agencies had problems with the criminal background systems. Officials say the system is better than it’s ever been.

"We've rebuilt this system while it's been running. We've repaved the roads while there were cars driving on it,” said Kim Murnieks, the Attorney General’s Chief Operating Officer.

We went to story time at the Worthington library to ask parents one question: After reading the internal emails of state employees describing in their own words major problems with Ohio's Broken Records, did these parents still have faith in the system?

“It's scary,” Chelsea Kaschelries said. "You can only do so much as a parent. You've got to do your own research all the time and you just can't rely on other people.”

Dispatch Reporter Randy Ludlow contributed to this report.

Critical Communications

Emails and letters to and from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office (referenced in Criminals: Off the Record)