For anyone looking, it wouldn’t have been too hard to uncover Talal Chammout’s sordid past.
A simple internet search would have turned up news accounts of his criminal history, such as his assault conviction or the time a federal judge sentenced him to 6½ years in prison for being a felon in possession of firearms.
The judge in that case ticked off a string of allegations against Chammout at his sentencing: He had been accused of shooting a juvenile in the leg, seeking to smuggle rocket launchers into the Middle East, attacking his wife with a crowbar and plotting to hire a hit man.
Three years after he was released from prison, Chammout wanted to be an Uber driver. The company did not run a background check on him and he was allowed to drive in 2015. Three months later, he followed one of his passengers into her home and sexually assaulted her. He is now serving a 25-year prison sentence.
It wasn’t the only time Uber welcomed a driver who should have been barred under the company’s policy that excludes people with convictions of serious crimes or major driving offenses from shuttling passengers, a CNN investigation into rideshare background checks found.
Among the shady drivers who cleared Uber’s screening process: A man convicted of attempted murder who is now accused of raping a passenger in Kansas City; a murderer on parole in Brazos County, Texas; a previously deported undocumented immigrant who is now facing trial for sexually assaulting three passengers and attacking another in San Luis Obispo, California. They no longer drive for Uber.
Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft have approved thousands of people who should have been disqualified because of criminal records, according to state agencies and lawsuits examined by CNN.
In statements to CNN, Uber and Lyft said their background checks are robust and fair. Uber acknowledged past mistakes in its screening process, but said, “More than 200,000 people failed our background check process in 2017 alone. While no background check is perfect, this is a process we take seriously and are committed to constantly improving.”
Though both companies say they support thorough vetting, they have pushed back on government efforts to add other layers of scrutiny to the screening process. CNN found a massive lobbying effort from rideshare companies led by Uber has successfully fought off additional backgrounding requirements for drivers, such as fingerprint scans or government screening, that some state and local officials say would help protect passengers.
Uber has played a key role in shaping the language of many state laws governing rideshare companies, giving the company authority to conduct its own background checks in most states with little or no oversight, unlike many taxi operations. The company has been particularly forceful in its opposition to requirements that would force it to check criminal records through an applicant’s fingerprint.
Of the 43 states that have passed laws or rules regulating rideshare driver background checks and eligibility, none require fingerprint-based checks, CNN found. In 31 states, the laws largely mirror Uber’s recommended screening policies, in some cases nearly word-for-word.
Legislative sources from 25 states told CNN Uber directly influenced the writing of their laws.
“Uber has essentially regulated itself,” said a former Uber employee and in-house lobbyist, who requested anonymity citing concern over possible backlash from a current employer. The former employee added that in most states, lawmakers just inserted Uber’s language.
An email between an Uber lobbyist and a lawmaker underscores the point.
As Wyoming State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer prepared to introduce a bill to regulate rideshare companies in his state in December 2016, an Uber lobbyist emailed him, pushing for a change in the proposed legislation.
“The draft includes a government-run background check. We need to change it back to the model language,” wrote the lobbyist, Erin Taylor, protesting a proposal in the bill that would require fingerprint checks.
She also asked, “Do you have any idea why they keep straying from the model bill language?” according to the email Zwonitzer shared with CNN.
The bill became Wyoming law in 2017 and left background checks up to Uber, as the lobbyist had requested. Zwonitzer said the final bill was the result of back-and-forth discussions with Uber and other stakeholders, but he said Uber “drew a line in the sand” about background-check requirements.
Taylor did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
A CNN investigation in April revealed more than 100 Uber drivers had been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the past four years. After questions from CNN for that report, Uber announced a policy change to rerun background checks annually and said the company would invest in technology to identify new criminal offenses.
But some state regulators and attorneys suing Uber say those updates do not go far enough. Critics of the rideshare companies’ background checks say drivers should submit to additional scrutiny, such as in-person interviews, government screening or fingerprint checks, which use biometric information to search for criminal records in an FBI database. Most US taxi and limousine drivers are required to obtain special licenses and undergo fingerprint checks.
Uber and Lyft’s background checks are mostly conducted by a third-party startup company called Checkr, which uses individuals’ names and Social Security numbers to find applicable information. It checks a national sex offender database, federal and local court records and databases used to flag suspected terrorists.
Three former Uber employees who worked on policy told CNN Uber seeks to approve new drivers as quickly as possible to maintain a large workforce and therefore opposes requirements to fingerprint applicants, which can add weeks to the onboarding process.
Uber and Lyft say fingerprint-checks reference historical arrest records, which can have discriminatory effects on some minority communities that face disproportionately high arrest rates. An Uber spokesperson told CNN arrest records are incomplete and often lack information about whether a person has been convicted of a crime.
Some states, according to Checkr, limit the records background check companies can report, which can create discrepancies between private background checks and those run by governments. For example, Massachusetts prohibits the reporting of convictions that are older than seven years.
Lobbying on steroids
In city after city across the United States, Uber has used the same overarching strategy to expand its business.
After launching in 2010, Uber began entering cities without coordinating with city governments or local taxi and limousine regulators. The Uber app then would become so popular with riders and drivers that any attempts by city officials to create regulations were met with fierce resistance, both by users of the app and by Uber’s lobbyists, multiple city and state officials told CNN.
Uber, along with its competitor Lyft, would then turn to state capitals to lobby for broader legislation that benefited the rideshare industry, undercutting local regulations or proposals.