updated 6/11/2008 8:34:07 PM ET 2008-06-12T00:34:07

The Census Bureau said Wednesday it will fingerprint and conduct background checks on more than a half-million temporary workers who will go door to door for the 2010 count, at a cost that could exceed $300 million.

Census Director Steven Murdock told a congressional committee the measures are necessary to ensure the federal government does not send criminals into the homes of the nation's residents.

He said it would be "absolutely devastating to the census" if temporary workers used their government jobs to commit crimes.

"We have a prime responsibility to ensure the safety of the American people," Murdock told the House Oversight Committee.

The Census Bureau received a waiver for the 2000 census from the federal requirement to fingerprint government employees. Workers' names, however, were checked.

Murdock said four census workers were accused of crimes in 2000, though none was convicted. He said there were far more crimes committed against census workers.

FBI to do background checks
Murdock said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who oversees the Census Bureau, approved the massive fingerprinting operation. The FBI, which will do the background checks, also approved.

Census officials told congressional staffers the program would cost an additional $340 million, though Murdock said the bureau is working to reduce costs.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., a member of the committee, asked why such a big program was being implemented less than two years from the constitutionally mandated count.

"Couldn't they have decided this in 2002, 2004 or 2006, instead of at the last minute?" she said. "This is a big decision, decided late, by the administration and not career professionals at Census."

The 2010 census is already over budget because of a botched technology contract, though the Congress got some good news Wednesday on the overall cost, which stands at more than $14 billion.

Technology glitches
The Census Bureau announced in April that technology problems will prevent it from upgrading the 2010 census into the first truly high-tech count in the nation's history. Workers were to use handheld computers to count the millions of residents who do not return census forms mailed out by the government. Instead, census takers will return to using paper and pencil.

The handheld computers, which look like fancy cell phones, will still be used to verify every residential street address in the country, using global positioning system software.

But workers going door-to-door will not be able to use them to collect information from residents who didn't return their census forms. About one-third of U.S. residents are expected not to return the forms. The bureau plans to hire and train more than 500,000 temporary workers to do the canvassing.

The contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp., initially told the Census Bureau that contract changes would add $1.3 billion to the cost, even though fewer computers would be needed. However, an independent consultant hired by the Census Bureau said the changes should increase the cost by far less — $717 million.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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