Customs, IG reach corruption probes accord
Overcoming years of mistrust, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Tuesday they will work together to investigate corruption within the border security agency.
Under the agreement, CBP will immediately assign investigators from its Office of Internal Affairs to participate in corruption investigations of border officers and other CBP employees. The Inspector General needs the additional manpower because its growth remains relatively flat while CBP's workforce continues to expand significantly. The resolution also creates an integrated departmental approach to dealing with other law enforcement agencies investigating internal malfeasance, DHS said.
'We welcome partnerships and innovation in our ongoing efforts to ensure the highest standards of integrity within CBP,' Commissioner Alan Bersin said in a statement. 'We owe it to the American people and to our highly ethical employees to quickly and thoroughly investigate indications of misconduct, which this agreement will help us accomplish.'
At a hearing in early March, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., expressed concern that CBP's rapid rate of hiring to beef up the Border Patrol and Customs officers at ports of entry could lead to more cases of bribery to turn a blind eye to smuggling or other types of corruption.
Customs in the past five years has hired about 16,000 new employees, representing a 37 percent increase in its workforce.
Landrieu questioned whether the department's fiscal year 2012 budget request of $26 million for anti-corruption efforts, such as integrity training and investigations, was sufficient, and told Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano that clear lines of authority were needed for conducting internal investigations. A Senate budget report last year included a similar recommendation.
'We will not stand for corruption among our troops. We do not want that bad seed to take root,' Napolitano said, of efforts to improve internal policing.
One of the greatest threats to law enforcement integrity is on the Southwest border, where smuggling of drugs, guns, cash and illegal immigrants is prevalent and drug traffickers have escalated efforts to find uniformed accomplices to get contraband in and out of the country. Drug cartels are even attempting to infiltrate CBP by sending members to take entrance examinations.
Since 2003, 129 CBP officers have been arrested on corruption charges.
There are plenty of examples of CBP officers who process international passengers or cargo at land or airports being caught abetting criminals. In March, a Customs officer in Atlanta pleaded guilty to smuggling guns and cash on a plane on behalf of drug traffickers. Last September, a Customs officer working at the Calexico crossing in California on the Mexican border was charged with conspiracy to import cocaine and methamphetamine and bribery. The federal complaint alleges that he received $52,000 for allowing vehicles he believed to be carrying narcotics to pass through his primary inspection lane at the plaza. In August 2010, a former CBP technician was sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle marijuana and undocumented aliens into the country and trying to bribe CBP officers to ignore inbound drug shipments.
The friction between CBP's Office of Internal Affairs and the Inspector General relates to whether CBP has the authority to independently investigate certain types of criminal wrongdoing within its ranks, said former CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham, now a partner in Washington-based Command Consulting Group.
'The Inspector General wanted to relegate them to administrative types of investigations and basically refused to share information with them and prevented Immigration and Customs Enforcement from sharing information in some cases,' he told American Shipper after participating in a roundtable discussion about homeland security at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In 2009, the IG sent a letter to CBP telling it to cease and desist from doing internal investigations, according to aides for a U.S. senator.
The Inspector General has primary jurisdiction for investigating criminal activity within the department, 'but I never believed that the Inspector General had all of the resources that they needed to get the job done,' Basham said. Adding CBP's top-level capabilities to the investigative mix would greatly help the effort to stamp out corruption, he said.
CBP Internal Affairs is required to notify the IG about allegations of employee misconduct. The ability to team up on investigations will enhance information sharing and data analysis, and enable officials to more quickly resolve unfounded allegations against personnel, CBP said.
The accord builds upon a December 2010 agreement between CBP and ICE under which CBP internal affairs agents have been detailed to the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility to jointly investigate allegations of misconduct by CBP employees that have been declined by the IG.
'We know the integrity of the vast majority of our workforce is beyond reproach,' Bersin said. 'But this is one more indication that ethical lapses will not be tolerated.'
Legislation passed last year mandates that CBP require polygraph tests of all applicants for law enforcement positions. The Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., also requires the agency to initiate background checks on all backlogged employees within six months. DHS says it can meet the two-year deadline to implement the polygraph requirement with the amount of funding it seeks for anti-corruption efforts.
In a Nov. 24 letter to Pryor, Napolitano stated that polygraph tests are an effective tool for preventing corruption. Among CBP officials who have successfully passed polygraph tests since 2006, only one has been the subject of an investigation for corruption. There were 585 allegations of improper conduct by CBP officials in 2009.
CBP policy requires all applicants for law enforcement officer positions to receive polygraph exams and a background investigation before being hired, with a periodic reinvestigation every five years. In 2009, less than 15 percent of applicants received a polygraph, according to the act.
DHS reduced the backload of reinvestigations from 13,029 to 3,881 from April to November of last year, Napolitano said in her letter.
CBP officials have previously stated they have not been given the resources to fully conduct polygraph exams. ' Eric Kulisch