CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) - As the US Census Bureau begins to hire 500,000 people to carry out the 2020 Census, a FOX 46 investigation found the Census Bureau hired a registered child sex offender to manage its Charlotte office.
The government never noticed Kenneth Mabry, 44, was on the North Carolina sex offender registry until he was arrested again on March 12, accused of "engag[ing] in a sex act" with a nine-year-old girl.
"They potentially put so many people at risk," said a Census Bureau employee who works in Charlotte.
FOX 46 agreed not to identify this federal employee because she is still employed by the Census Bureau and is not authorized to speak to the media.
"This should have popped up in his background investigation," the whistleblower said. "It's a big mistake. A really big mistake. I'm angry."
Mabry was convicted in Missouri in 2013 for attempting to molest an 11-year-old, according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. He was sentenced to three years probation and required to register as a sex offender for at least 10 years.
Mabry, who received a taxpayer-funded salary, was hired last August to recruit employees for the upcoming 2020 Census.
"He was at churches. He was at parades. He was at community fairs," the employee said. "It's upsetting. It's scary."
Mabry did not do door-to-door home visits, but the whistleblower told FOX 46 there is "no doubt" his recruitment work put him in close proximity to children.
In January, Mabry was promoted to regional office manager and would, by next year, have overseen a thousand employees, according to his LinkedIn profile, which was deleted following FOX 46's report, and confirmed by the Census Bureau.
After seven months on the job, Mabry was fired in March after he was arrested for allegedly molesting a nine-year-old girl.
"We were provided no information about his dismissal," the employee said.
An internal email, obtained by FOX 46, sent six days after Mabry's arrest, only informed employees that Mabry was "no longer with the Census Bureau." There was no mention of his arrest, what he was charged with, or how his sex offender status was missed. A follow-up email warned employees they are "not authorized" to talk to the media.
At his home, Mabry identified himself to investigative reporter Matt Grant but closed the door when asked about his arrest.
"Why were you working for the Census Bureau? Did they know about your past conviction?" Grant asked.
FOX 46 wanted to know how the government could miss Mabry's sex offender status, since it is the first thing to appear in a Google search of his name. So we consulted a Charlotte private investigator with more than 30 years experience conducting background checks.
"The background check was likely non-existent," said Jan Barefoot, with Barefoot Professional Investigations, who agreed to look into this case.
Since Missouri considers Mabry's case closed, and no longer public record, Mabry's conviction likely would not have appeared on a criminal history report, Barefoot said. However, since Mabry is required to register as as a sex offender, his status should have been easily found if screeners bothered to check.
"If their hiring policy is not to hire registered sex offenders," said Barefoot, "than it does appear they did not check the sex offender registry."
Mabry's hiring raises troubling questions about how employees, who will be going door-to-door to homes across the country next year to conduct the 2020 Census count, are screened. An Office of Inspector General report last year found the Census Bureau's background check office "not fully prepared" for the 2020 Census, citing "inadequate quality assurance practices."
FOX 46 asked if sex offender registries are checked, why it seemingly wasn't in this case, and if anything will change going forward.
"We take this matter very seriously," said Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook, who said he could not comment on the details of this case. Cook would not say what went wrong or if any completed background checks will now need to be re-done.
"We have rigourous hiring procedures and checks in place to catch these issues early on in the hiring process," Cook said. "We are training our employees to ensure that these procedures are followed."
The Census Bureau screens applicants through the use of FBI fingerprint checks and a search of arrest records, according to its website.
FOX 46 asked if the employees responsible for conducting Mabry's background check will be disciplined.
"I am unable to comment any further on ongoing personnel matters," Cook responded.
Mabry, who served in the Army, appeared before a judge in Gaston County on Wednesday. He did not enter a plea and his case was postponed until July. For now, Mabry remains free on $20,000 bond.
Outside the courtroom, in the hallway, Grant tried again to ask Mabry if he had any comment on his case or employment with the Census Bureau.
"Go away," Mabry responded. "Goodbye."
What will not go away any time soon is his sex offender status-- something that should have kept him from working with the public in the first place. It's a mistake the woman who used to work for him can't forgive.
"Something this major should not have slipped through the cracks," she said.
US Census Bureau Response
"Mr. Mabry is no longer employed by the U.S. Census Bureau. His former position did not involve any door-to-door interviewing. While we cannot comment any further on ongoing personnel matters, we take this matter very seriously. We remain committed to hiring practices that are fair and ensure safety to the public. We have rigorous hiring procedures and checks in place to catch these issues early on in the hiring process and deal with them in the appropriate manner, and we are training our employees to ensure that these procedures are followed." - Michael Cook, US Census Bureau spokesman