Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson
Columnist

Seeking common ground on battling border-patrol corruption

Richard Martin provided a welcome contrast to the corruption and Department of Homeland Security bureaucratic infighting that was the topic of a Senate hearing Thursday.

Martin is a Senate electrical mechanic who knows how to create some joy before the more dour work of Capitol Hill sessions begin. To perform a mike check prior to a hearing on crooked Customs and Border Protection officers and the turf battle over investigating them, he sat in a witness chair and played “Nothing From Nothing” on his harmonica. He played over a recording of the Billy Preston tune, whose lyrics, “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin,’ ” could be a lesson on the need for agencies to work together and compromise.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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It’s a lesson that the two DHS units represented at the hearing — the Office of Inspector General and CBP — are trying to implement as they root out corrupt officers. Both sides, however, acknowledge that they haven’t resolved all their issues yet.

“There was more than tension and friction. . . . There was outright confrontation,” was CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin’s frank assessment.

Bersin and acting DHS Inspector General Charles Edwards attended the session with enough aides to field two football teams.

But NFL-type competition between law enforcement agencies is a problem for Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ad hoc subcommittee on disaster recovery and intergovernmental affairs. He lamented the ongoing “lack of true collaboration and vital information sharing between CBP and the Inspector General’s office when it comes to investigating alleged acts of corruption. . . . We must conduct these investigations in an efficient and collaborative way that leads to results in the quickest way possible. Based on reports, this does not seem to be the way we are currently operating.”

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered Bersin and Edwards to get their act together.

“The acrimony of the past, I think, has given away to a professional spirit of collaboration,” Bersin said after the hearing.

Edwards praised the secretary for insisting on greater cooperation between the agencies.

The initial problem stemmed from CBP’s conducting its own probes of officers accused of taking money, sex and other bribes from Mexican drug cartels. Nobody argues with the need to get rid of dirty cops, but Edwards says it is his agency that must take the lead in investigating them.

Law and policy “vest the OIG with the primary responsibility within DHS for investigating allegations of criminal misconduct of DHS employees,” he told the panel.

“The DHS Management Directive plainly establishes OIG’s right of first refusal to conduct investigations of criminal conduct by DHS employees, and the right to supervise any such investigations that are conducted by DHS internal affairs components.”

Doing otherwise can lead to different law enforcement agencies “pursuing the same targets, which duplicates efforts and places law enforcement agents’ safety at risk,” Edwards said.

Despite this, inspector general officials say CBP continues to investigate corruption without the legal authority do so.

Bersin is considering a memorandum of understanding, which Edwards has already accepted, that is designed to end the family feud. He said it recognizes the inspector general’s primacy in corruption investigations and allows CBP officers to participate in certain probes, but under the IG’s supervision.

CBP’s internal affairs staff does have the authority to probe corruption, Bersin said during an interview after the hearing, but “we accept the notion that those investigations should be conducted under the oversight of the IG.”

Under the proposed agreement, each agency would bring somethin’ to somethin’.

The inspector general has the authority but not enough troops to fully enforce it. While the DHS workforce grew by 34 percent from fiscal year 2006 through 2009, Edwards said his office increased only 6 percent. Meanwhile, with almost 60,000 law enforcement officers and support personnel, CBP has the troops to investigate corruption, but not the authority.

Edwards: “We have an overall agreement, but there is still a sticking point.”

One sticking point is under what conditions the inspector general would again participate in the Border Corruption Task Force along with CBP and other law enforcement agencies. The inspector general’s office withdrew from the task force because the office felt the task force did not recognize the IG’s primacy in CBP corruption cases.

Bersin: “I think we’re close, and I think we can overcome the remaining issues.”

They better. Drug lords aren’t waiting for law enforcement officials to start singing “Kumbaya” to each other.

“The Mexican drug cartels today are more sophisticated and dangerous than any other organized criminal group,” Edwards said. “They use torture and brutality to control their members and intimidate or eliminate those who may be witnesses or informants to their activities. The drug trafficking organizations also have turned to corrupting DHS employees.”

That’s got to stop.

 
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