Border agency’s watchdog under investigation for coverup

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 20, 2014 


United States Customs and Border Protection officers on the border with Mexico.

DON BARTLETTI — Los Angeles Times, MCT

— The internal affairs division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection is being investigated for falsifying documents, intentionally misplacing employee complaints and bungling misconduct reports as part of a coverup to mask its failure to curb employee wrongdoing, a McClatchy investigation has found.

The inquiry of the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency also involves a much broader array of allegations, including an inner-office sexual relationship between two high-ranking officials, who themselves sometimes oversee investigations of similar illicit affairs. According to three Customs and Border Protection officials, investigators quietly interviewed witnesses this spring as part of a potential criminal case that reflected badly on the leadership of former division chief James Tomsheck and at least two of his deputies.

The investigation already was under way when the Obama administration earlier this month removed Tomsheck, who had run the internal affairs division since 2006.

The allegations taint a unit that must grapple with recurring accusations that Customs and Border Protection personnel have abused migrants, including children, taken bribes and conspired with drug cartels.

“There were so many allegations of wrongdoing involving the internal affairs division you’d need a flow chart to sort them all out,” said one of the agency officials, who asked to remain unnamed because the inquiry is ongoing. “It’s insane because this division is supposed to be looking into employee misconduct, yet it is being accused of the very same corruption it is supposed to be investigating.”

The internal affairs division has been further shaken by two suicides of internal affairs officers in less than a year, including one retired veteran Secret Service agent who had overseen the division’s Houston office.

Tomsheck was ousted earlier this month amid complaints that his unit failed to complete investigations of excessive use of force by border agents. But those complaints, McClatchy has determined, were only part of the story.

The special investigators are looking into whether official case files had been altered to make them look like they were approved for investigations more recently than they were, according to government documents and agency officials. Headquarters officials also are accused of trying to cover up the lack of oversight. The problems were said to have tainted multiple cases in cities across the country including Miami, Detroit, Dallas, Houston and San Francisco.

The investigators are part of a special unit inside the internal affairs division charged with looking into allegations of misconduct within the division.

The inspector general’s office also was tipped off about the allegations in recent months, according to one of the officials, who asked to remain unnamed because the inquiry is ongoing.

Attempts to contact Tomsheck’s lawyer for comment were unsuccessful.

Christopher T. O’Neil, deputy assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Public Affairs, said, “As a matter of CBP policy, I’m unable to comment on personnel matters. I can however tell you that as announced on June 9, 2014, FBI Director James Comey, at Commissioner (Gil) Kerlikowske’s request, has assigned a high level FBI manager to serve as the acting Assistant Commissioner of Internal Affairs at CBP. This change demonstrates Commissioner Kerlikowske’s commitment to openness and accountability of CBP.”

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security headquarters did not immediately respond to questions. A spokeswoman with the inspector general’s office declined to comment.

Similar allegations of document tampering led to criminal indictments at another watchdog agency at the Department of Homeland Security last year. In that case, agents with the inspector general’s office were accused of backdating memos in investigative files to show progress in cases that never occurred.

Tomsheck’s high-profile ouster came as the Obama administration grew concerned over his unit’s failure to complete investigations of hundreds of cases that had been brought to light by McClatchy and other news organizations. They included allegations of sexual abuse and excessive force by agents along the border.

Internal affairs, the inspector general’s office, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Professional Responsibility look into different aspects of misconduct at the agency, which can range from minor charges of time card fraud to felony charges of accepting bribes from drug traffickers.

Misconduct investigators have struggled to keep up with allegations of malfeasance at Customs and Border Protection, which employs more than 60,000 workers. Agency officers typically screen more than 67,000 cargo containers and seize almost six tons of illegal drugs daily, according to the agency’s estimates.

The allegations against the internal affairs division first surfaced at a time when its analysts were under tremendous pressure to resolve outstanding cases.

By June 2011, leaders were growing concerned about hundreds of open cases, according to documents obtained by McClatchy. Attention was on one internal affairs office that prepared analytical reports for investigators to determine what cases to pursue. The office had more than 700 open cases. There were also concerns about missing reports and delayed referrals to investigators.

To reduce the growing backlog, then-director Janene Corrado, who is now the internal affairs chief of staff, declared July 2011 would be “amnesty month,” according to the division meeting notes.

“All of these open cases need to be resolved in the next 31 days,” employees were told, according to the notes. “. . . We need to clean these cases up.”

According to the records obtained by McClatchy, analysts complained that division leaders failed to review reports they completed sometimes years earlier.

In one example, one supervisor reprimanded an internal affairs analyst in a 2011 email for what he described as incomplete work on an investigation of a border agent’s family connections to drug smugglers.

The supervisor accused the employee of “poor analytical work.” The supervisor added, “Your research failed to reveal a significant ongoing investigation . . . about the employee.”

But according to a case chronology and earlier copies of the reports obtained by McClatchy, the analyst completed his report two years earlier, on Oct. 13, 2009. At that time, he offered several “potential investigative leads” for agents to possibly pursue.

Two years later, the case was still identified as being “unclosed and wrongly overdue,” according to internal affairs emails that cited a 2011 audit.

Someone then changed the report date from Oct. 13, 2009 to July 11, 2011. The analyst reported to another supervisor that he hadn’t changed the date and accused managers of altering his report.

“Doesn’t this make me look like the delinquent one?” the analyst wrote to his supervisor.

Other analysts raised similar concerns _ about date changes of cases, missing files and portions of reports being omitted _ in other parts of the country.

A former senior internal affairs analyst, John Richardson, who is not directly involved in the matter, received the altered report, meeting minutes and internal emails and handed them over to the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee. He also gave the documents to the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower complaints.

Richardson, who says he was terminated this year after he requested different duties because of a back injury sustained as a Navy intelligence officer, asserts in his complaint that the allegations against internal affairs leaders support his own and other employees’ allegations of retaliation.

“What was happening inside the internal affairs division impacts the protection of our borders,” he said. “This is a serious national security matter.”

Officials have been arrested for altering investigative records at another DHS watchdog agency.

Eugenio Pedraza, who served as special agent in charge of the DHS’ Office of Inspector General office in McAllen, Texas, was found guilty in March of charges related to ordering his subordinates to falsify misconduct reports. The 31-page indictment alleges he led a scheme that sought to cover up “severe lapses in DHS-OIG’s investigative standards” before an internal review of the McAllen office, the Justice Department said in a statement. He’ll be sentenced next month.

The internal affairs division has suffered from low morale and leadership problems.

The inner-office sexual affair is alleged to have contributed to the problems, according to agency documents. At one point, Tomsheck shocked employees by openly discussing the relationship between his deputy and her subordinate in a division-wide employee conference call, the documents state. The relationship between the deputy and the employee was said to be interfering with the work of the division and would be a matter that the division would ordinarily have to investigate.

A 2013 federal employee survey found that one-third of internal affairs officers were dissatisfied with feedback from their managers, with one section reporting nearly 70 percent dissatisfaction. Almost half, in some sections more than 75 percent, felt they didn’t have the proper resources to do their jobs.

Raising even more concerns among employees, two internal affairs officers have committed suicide in less than a year. One of the agent’s offices was under scrutiny by the inspector general’s office. Tomsheck, in a division-wide employee conference call, implied that turmoil resulting from the inspector general’s investigation contributed to the officer’s suicide, according to four officials with knowledge of the call.

Last October, Dennis Lindsay, the former special agent in charge of the internal affairs office in Houston, committed suicide at a graveyard near his office, according to Houston Police Department records. Lindsay did not leave a note, nor has any motive been determined.

Special agent David Green with the inspector general’s office retrieved Lindsay’s badges and Blackberry from the police department, the records show.

Green, who also testified against Pedraza in McAllen, would not comment.

One former colleague of Lindsay said he found it hard to believe that the former special agent may have been directly implicated in any allegations of wrongdoing.

“That guy was a straight arrow. He was like a Boy Scout. It’s a surprise to everyone he did this,” said Steve Morris, a former colleague of Lindsay’s at the Secret Service who later worked as a Customs and Border Protection contractor. “But the guy did live the job. I could see him taking it hard that the office he oversaw was being investigated.”

The news that a second internal affairs officer in Arizona killed himself has further demoralized the internal affairs division.

On June 2, John D. Anthony shot himself in the head, according to the medical examiner. Authorities found him in the back of his car on a small highway near the Cochise College Airport along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office said a dual investigation has been opened by the sheriff and the FBI.

Anthony was assigned to the Tucson office and worked for the government for more than 30 years, including the Border Patrol, according to a DHS internal notice of his death, which described him as “a valued and respected member of the (Internal Affairs) family.”

Under Tomsheck, a former veteran Secret Service agent, the internal affairs division also became known for pursuing controversial criminal cases. At least one of them is now being scrutinized.

In that criminal inquiry, dubbed Operation Lie Busters, federal agents investigated instructors who claimed they can teach job applicants how to pass lie detector tests.

In the days after Tomsheck’s ouster, the inspector general began interviewing officials who handled the criminal investigation as part of what is being described as an “inspection.”

The criminal inquiry, which was reported by McClatchy last year, was aimed at discouraging criminals and spies from infiltrating the U.S. government by using the polygraph-beating techniques.

By attempting to prosecute the instructors, however, federal officials adopted a controversial legal stance that sharing such information should be treated as a crime.

The case sparked a debate over whether the federal government should be pursuing such instructors given questions about the reliability of lie detectors, which are not accepted by most courts as evidence against criminal defendants.

Tish Wells of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

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