If you peruse ClearanceJobs.com with any frequency, it should not be surprising that the number one reason for security clearance denials and revocations is financial problems. We write about the issue consistently, and for good reason: despite efforts to educate the cleared workforce about this phenomenon, it persists year after year across government.

“Phenomenon” is, indeed, an apt descriptor given the sheer number of people impacted by the issue. We’re talking thousands of cleared contractors, civil servants, and members of the Armed Forces who each year face potentially career-ending inquiries into delinquent debt that is perceived as indicative of poor judgment, a lack of self-control, or an inability to live within one’s means. Such attributes, if proven, are incompatible with the fiduciary-like responsibilities of a security clearance holder.

But the fact of the matter is that a great many of these cases are for reasons entirely outside the clearance holder’s control – for example, job loss, divorce or a health crisis. If the clearance holder has acted reasonably in attempting to resolve the debt, many of these cases can be mitigated. The issue thus becomes one of perception: is the uncontrollable circumstance the root cause of the debt or did it merely exacerbate a pre-existing problem like champagne taste on a beer budget?

Personnel security officials have a variety of ways to ferret out the truth, but there is one in particular that we’ve seen catch many clearance holders off-guard. It starts with a simple question posed by the government attorney, deciding official, administrative judge or Personnel Security Appeals Board during a hearing:

What kind of car do you drive? 

Answer with anything modest – most domestic makes, an older model foreign make, etc. – and that’s typically the end of that line of questioning. But answer with a newer model luxury car or some exotic showpiece and that’s where things go off the rails.

Is it fair to assume that anyone with delinquent debt and a nice car is living beyond their means or has poor judgment? Not necessarily. But perceptions do matter, and leaving one’s creditors in the exhaust of a brand-new Mercedes doesn’t exactly create a good one.

Clearance holders with delinquent debt who are interested in avoiding the denial or revocation of their clearance should take this into consideration before the government raises concerns about their finances. In other words, the time for action is before perception becomes reality.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials, revocations, and the security clearance application process. He is a former investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management). For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com. Readers will also find a low-cost, self-help option for obtaining copies of their security clearance background investigations and DISS/Scattered Castles records at www.bigleylaw.com/security-clearance-investigation-records.