State Department:

Better Oversight and Controls Could Improve Timely Delivery of Legal Documents for Terrorism Victims

GAO-19-139: Published: Dec 12, 2018. Publicly Released: Dec 12, 2018.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Jason Bair
(202) 512-6881
BairJ@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Some victims of state-sponsored terrorism can sue the responsible government and may also be eligible for compensation from a special victims' fund. However, they often rely upon the State Department to deliver the necessary legal documents for a fee. State did this more than 200 times from 2007 through 2017. Those cases took:

5 months to complete on average

longer than 6 months about 29% of the time

longer than a year 7 times

Delays caused the State Department to waive $57,000 in fees it would have collected, and may have affected victims' compensation eligibility. We recommended ways to improve performance.

 

This is a photograph of the Department of State headquarters building.

This is a photograph of the Department of State headquarters building.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Jason Bair
(202) 512-6881
BairJ@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Department of State (State) notifies sovereign defendants of court proceedings under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in a four stage process that has taken on average about 5 months to complete. State headquarters has overall responsibility for delivering legal documents but U.S. embassies and foreign governments play key roles as well. From 2007 through 2017, State completed 229 requests for delivery of legal documents in an average of about 5 months, but about 28 percent of the requests took longer than 6 months and 7 requests took more than a year. Slow delivery could adversely affect a plaintiff's ability to obtain compensation from a special victims' fund that Congress set up in 2015.

State's Process for Delivering Legal Documents

State's Process for Delivering Legal Documents

State's guidance and federal internal control standards require controls such as accurate and complete record-keeping, continuous monitoring, and analysis of data; however, GAO found that State lacks several key controls to manage its delivery of legal documents. First, State's records are incomplete. For example, for 82 percent of the cases, State had no information about when it received court requests. Second, State did not monitor the progress of cases, resulting in slow service. This slow service led State to waive fees of about $57,000 because checks had expired. Third, State did not analyze case data to identify factors contributing to slow service, or establish timeframes for completing service. As a result, managers lack a sound basis for making decisions on how to improve timeliness. In June 2018, State took some actions based on GAO's review to improve its performance, including preparing step-by-step guidance and developing a new record-keeping system, but further actions could fill the gaps that have impaired program performance.

Why GAO Did This Study

While foreign states generally cannot be sued in a U.S. court, under FSIA, parties can sue governments for certain crimes such as injury or death from an act of terrorism, if certain factors are present. State is required by statute to serve notice of such suits or default judgments when other means for effecting service are not available, and charges plaintiffs a fee of $2,275 to complete this task. Plaintiffs in such cases may also qualify for compensation from a fund that Congress established called the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.

In this report, GAO examines (1) how State completes this service and the length of time it takes to complete requests, and (2) whether State has implemented key controls for executing service requests promptly. GAO reviewed State regulations, guidance, case files, and data from 2007 through 2017; and interviewed State officials in Washington, D.C., the Czech Republic, Germany, and Switzerland, which handle the vast majority of cases. GAO assessed State's controls against federal internal control standards.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations to State, including that it update its record-keeping guidance to ensure its records are accurate and complete, monitor the progress of requests, periodically analyze data to identify causes of slow service and take corrective actions, and establish timeframes for completing service. State concurred with all five of GAO's recommendations and identified actions it plans to take to address them.

For more information, contact Jason Bair at (202) 512-6881 or BairJ@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2019, State reiterated its concurrence with the recommendation and said that it had taken action. GAO is reviewing the evidence.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs requires Consular Affairs' Directorate of Overseas Citizens Services/Office of Legal Affairs (OCS/L) to update guidance to specify the data to be recorded in the service request case tracker. The required data should include key dates for all four stages of the process for completing service, such as the date the court sent the request to OCS/L. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2019, State reiterated its concurrence with this recommendation and said that it had taken action. GAO is reviewing the evidence.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs requires OCS/L to update its record-keeping guidance for service requests to include a standard list of documents to maintain in service request case files. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2019, State reiterated its concurrence with this recommendation and said that it had taken action including training staff, implementing controls, and holding weekly meetings to review requests. GAO is reviewing the evidence.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs requires OCS/L to monitor the status of service requests. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2019, State reiterated its concurrence with this recommendation and said that it had taken action such as instituting regular staff meetings and producing monthly and quarterly reports. GAO is reviewing the evidence.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs requires OCS/L to periodically analyze its data on service requests to identify the causes of any delays in State's completion of service and take corrective actions as appropriate. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2019, State reiterated its concurrence with this recommendation and said that it had taken action such as issuing new guidance that includes timeframes for certain steps. GAO is reviewing the evidence.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs establishes performance standards for completing service, including timeframes for completing the various processes at State and at U.S. embassies. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 10, 2019

Sep 9, 2019

Aug 14, 2019

  • international icon: Art Explosion

    Electronic Cigarettes:

    U.S. Imports, 2016-2018
    GAO-19-619R: Published: Jul 12, 2019. Publicly Released: Aug 14, 2019.

Aug 12, 2019

Aug 8, 2019

Aug 1, 2019

Jul 31, 2019

Jun 24, 2019

Looking for more? Browse all our products here