HOUSTON -- The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General will take a significantly expanded role with investigations of allegations of corrupt employees of the Customs and Border Protection agency.
The decision comes on the heels of a report by KHOU-TV in May, which revealed how some federal border agents could commit crimes or violate serious federal regulations and receive little to no punishment from the agency charged with protecting the nation’s borders.
“I thought it was right on the money,” Assistant Inspector General Thomas Frost said of the KHOU report. “I think we could talk for a long time just on some of the concepts you had in your story.”
The report in May, based on internal data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed for the first time how CBP’s own employees were found to commit offenses such as the “material and intentional falsification of documents.” Other were found to be, “Knowingly And Inappropriately Associating With Informants or Criminal Suspects.” One of those employees got just a five-day suspension; another was given a mere reprimand and allowed to return to work.
The data also showed 50 CBP employees found in “possession, use, sale, or distribution of illegal drugs or substances,” an especially egregious violation given one of the main missions of the agency is to keep illegal drugs out. Nineteen employees were fired, two received a simple suspension and four received only reprimands.
Surprising to many members of Congress, 25 employees were allowed to resign or retire with a pension, thereby immediately closing any administrative investigation and preventing a permanent black mark from being placed on their record.
Frost said one of the benefits of the working agreement signed between the two agencies this week is that it will speed up both the investigations of allegations of corruption as well as the disciplinary process.
“If we can accelerate the process of the H.R. action not only can we help protect the department from unreasonable or unacceptable vulnerabilities, we can also move quicker on the H.R. part, and that may result in someone not getting their pension,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General serves as an independent and objective inspection, audit and investigative body. Acting Inspector General Charles Edwards and the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection signed the working agreement, which was obtained by KHOU.
“Given the national security implications of border security, ensuring the integrity of DHS, and in particular, CBP workforce is of highest investigative priority for both parties…It is critical, therefore, that DHS guard carefully against efforts to corrupt CBP officers and take aggressive action where corrupt activities are uncovered.”
The memo details how CBP internal affairs agents will be loaned out to work shifts at various Office of Inspector General field offices. Once working in those offices, they could lend both their increased manpower and also internal knowledge of how the border agency operates to investigators from the O.I.G. However, the memo makes it abundantly clear that the Office of Inspector General would at all times remain in control of all investigations.
“In the process of instituting this agreement, we’re bringing CBP in at an earlier stage, at the earliest possible stage,” said assistant inspector general Frost. “(That is) where they can begin appropriate human resource action and protect the interest of CBP, hopefully much earlier and much more effectively.”
The memo says that the Office of Inspector General, not Customs and Border Protection, would make the decision on whether or not criminal allegations that don’t result in actual prosecutions should be forwarded for further review by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
Before this week’s working agreement, the Office of Inspector General had just 213 investigators assigned to look into more than 220,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as an additional 200,000 contractors. Those investigators have to investigate everything from fraud at FEMA to multi-billion dollar financial fraud associated with contractors.
The working agreement allows the office to have a team of specialists in border corruption come under its own roof while not taking away resources from other Homeland Security Office of Inspector General priorities.
"The agreement between CBP and DHS OIG re-emphasizes the necessity of partnerships to the investigation of border-related criminal misconduct while reconfirming our commitment to maintaining the highest standards of integrity within CBP," CBP spokesperson Stephanie Malin said in a statement. "We welcome the opportunity to facilitate more aggressive investigative action in the relentless pursuit of violators and the increased ability to more quickly resolve unmeritorious allegeations lodged against CBP personell."
The memo does not specify how many internal affairs agents from CBP will be assigned to assist the Inspector General.
Additionally, while it increases the ability of an outside entity to control more investigations, it does not address what some members of Congress have called gaping loopholes in agency security that make it easier for drug cartels to target border agents.
For instance, while CBP asks potential new hires to take a lie detector test to prove they are not a member of a cartel, the agency does not require any employee to undergo a regular polygraph test once they get the job and are working in a sensitive position.
"No current employees are required to undergo polygraph testing. Currently we do not have plans to start," wrote Malin.
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, who chairs the House subcommittee on Homeland Security oversight, had mixed reviews about the steps the agencies are taking to address corruption.
“This is progress toward making sure investigations are conducted in a timely manner and ultimately rooting out corruption,” he said. “Initially, though, I am concerned that CBP’s participation could compromise the independent nature and the integrity of OIG investigations. I am also discouraged that CBP has no plans for routine polygraph screening after hiring. The drug cartels are sophisticated operations. Infiltrating our law enforcement and finding someone who is willing to look the other way is worth millions of dollars. I will monitor this arrangement and determine whether an oversight hearing is necessary.”
McCaul’s concern, related to the lack of polygraphing current CBP employees, may be well-founded if you listen to other federal agencies.
Assistant Inspector General Frost says the drug cartels have become so sophisticated; they are now using similar methods to target border agents as what foreign intelligence services use to recruit spies.