Penn State

Penn State using federal watch lists to screen people, companies

If you sign up to take classes with Penn State’s World Campus, your name might be checked against 40 lists of names of people on the federal government’s watch list.

Penn State screens about 40,000 people and companies a year, and this year added World Campus applicants to those who might be checked before they are enrolled.

Wayne Mowery, university export compliance officer, said he and his co-workers screen for the names of any students and teachers applying from countries deemed by the government to be high risk.

They also screen companies that sponsor university research, vendors the university buys from and people from high-risk countries that its students or employees meet with.

“In a nutshell, what we do here is try and make sure that we are not providing schooling and resources to or working with any of these people or companies on the list,” Mowery said. “It’s important we do this not only for the prevention of being fined, but for the safety of our school.”

Checking restricted-party lists is not just a Penn State policy, it is a federal one.

This year Penn State purchased an upgraded software license from eCustoms Inc., a national software vendor, that allowed Mowery to add screeners to help run necessary or requested checks against restricted-party listings and to screen more people.

Some examples of the lists individuals and companies are screened against include the FBI most-wanted list; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives most-wanted list; doctors and nurses accused of health care or patient abuse; individuals and companies denied export privileges; and foreign people or companies that have violated U.S. sanctions against Syria or Iran.

The lists are regularly updated by the federal government. The software used by Penn State, Visual Compliance, automatically updates every night.

Even though a company or individual may be found to be on one of the 40 lists, the school may be permitted to work with the party if granted a license from the government and depending on the reason for dealing with Penn State, Mowery said.

“Sometimes it’s easy to get a license from the government if an individual or company is on this list, but sometimes it could be impossible,” he said.

“For example, some people want to go to China universities for research, but 10 to 12 of these universities are almost fully funded by the Chinese military. So if we are trying to provide information to the universities, such as sensor technology, the information will most likely go to the military, which we don’t want.”

The process can be time-consuming because each name is searched individually and searches tend to get a lot of false hits, Mowery said.

“Because a lot of people around the world have the same name, when we search someone many hits come up,” he said. “When this happens, we need to get more information about the person or company to make sure it’s a match.”

Company matches are rare, and there has never been an individual match, he said.

Mowery has been using the software at Penn State for about four years but has been working in this field for almost 20 years. Before joining Penn State, he was an attorney in private practice.

Failing to screen has had consequences.

The Wall Street Journal reported in March that PayPal, an electronic payment firm, had agreed to pay $7.7 million in a settlement with the Treasury Department after not accurately screening those to whom they provided transactions.

The violations include more than $7,000 worth of transactions made for a Turkish man who was on the U.S. blacklist for weapons of mass destruction proliferation between 2009 and 2013, the Journal said.

Another violation involved the processing of thousands of dollars worth of transactions for goods and services going to and from Cuba, Sudan and Iran, the Journal reported.