Obama's Chief Techie: Big Plans, and an Old Shoplifting Rap

Obama's chief information officer brings big ideas -- and a shoplifting rap.

March 23, 2009, 7:22 PM

March 24, 2009— -- You've probably run into someone who would remind you of Vivek Kundra. He's the young tech whiz -- age 34 -- brought in by President Obama to revamp the way the government deals with computer technology.

As the government's chief information officer, he has plans to put vital information online for the public to see, cut waste from government operations, and save taxpayers money. He wants to use things like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to speed the flow of information between Washington and the rest of the nation.

But first, he has to get past some nagging legal details. Though he's not a target, the FBI is investigating his old office at the District of Columbia, where he was chief technology officer. Three members of his old staff there have been charged with bribery.

And one other thing: when Kundra was 21 years old, records show, he was caught stealing four shirts from a J.C. Penney store.

Kundra was named to his new job March 5 -- and the next week, he took a leave of absence because of the FBI's investigation. He came back March 17.

The Office of Management and Budget, where Kundra's located, sent an e-mail saying, "Right now, Vivek isn't doing interviews." The White House issued two one-line statements of confidence in him:

As for charges that subordinates of his at the District of Columbia may have taken bribes: "Mr. Kundra has been informed that he is neither a subject nor a target of the investigation and has been reinstated."

As for those shirts: "Thirteen years ago, Vivek committed a youthful indiscretion. He performed community service, and we are satisfied that he fully resolved the matter." The shoplifting incident was first reported on a blog called Hot Air.

What's going on here? The new administration has a lot of work to do, but it keeps being sideswiped by issues in its appointees' pasts. Police records provided to ABC News show that those shirts from Penney's were worth less than $140. Kundra was fined $100 plus $55 in court costs, and ordered to do 80 hours of community service. He reportedly told the White House about the incident while he was being vetted for his current job.

People who know him speak highly of him.

"I would describe his demeanor as thoughtful, but I would also describe him as very energetic," said Aneesh Chopra, the secretary of technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia, where Kundra was assistant secretary for commerce and technology. "He also has a lot of empathy."

Kundra in Charge of Recovery.gov

Chopra added, "In technology, one of the hardest traits to find is an ability to understand a problem, and translate it into something that works for people. Most research will show that when projects fail, the root is in that translation problem. Vivek is very good at solving that."

Kundra, born in India, spent his early childhood in Tanzania. He moved with his family to Maryland when he was 11, and has degrees from the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia.

In a conference call March 5, when he arrived in his new job, Kundra told reporters the government "is going to need to go through a transformation to ensure that we have the right resources to be able to respond to a new economy, to the digital economy." A transcript was provided by the White House.

He says there is no reason for governments to be writing their own software when companies may be able to provide the same thing, off the shelf, for less. When he worked for the District of Columbia, he used Twitter for office communications, and he moved to make it possible for residents to renew their drivers' licenses or pay parking tickets on Facebook.

Now that he's moved to the federal government, he's in charge of recovery.gov, the massive Web site on which the administration promises to post details of where economic stimulus money is going. He said there are plans for another site, data.gov, an outlet for the masses of information the government can make available.

"There is a lot of data that the federal government has. And what we need to do is, we need to make sure that all that data that's not private, that's not, you know, restricted for national security reasons, can be made public," he said.

But reporters, watchdog groups and information-technology specialists still ask about that perplexing 1996 shoplifting charge from Penney's.

"We wish Vivek and his White House handlers would come forth," wrote Eric Krangel of Silicon Alley Insider. "Because right now, we not only think Vivek is a petty thief, we think he's a petty thief with bad taste in clothes."

ABC News' Scott Michels contributed reporting for this story.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events