By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 2008
Democratic lawmakers yesterday accused Julie L. Myers, an assistant secretary of homeland security, of misleading Congress after photographs emerged of Myers at an office Halloween party honoring a white employee dressed as an escaped prisoner with dreadlocks and makeup that made him look African American or Hispanic.
Myers, whose Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency runs the nation's 32,000-bed immigration detention system, was on a three-judge panel that gave a "most original costume" award to the worker at an ICE charity event Oct. 31. Myers subsequently apologized, saying the costume could leave "a negative impression" of ICE's respect for people whom it detains and explained that she learned only the next day that the man was wearing makeup.
Myers's Senate confirmation was delayed until December partly as a result of the controversy, and she told lawmakers who inquired last fall that she had immediately instructed aides to order that the digital photographs of the worker be deleted. The images aired on CNN yesterday, however, after the cable television network obtained 113 official photographs of the party, including recovered versions of all the deleted ones, through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"At a minimum, she was being disingenuous," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Senate homeland security committee. McCaskill had objected to Myers's nomination over her handling of the matter and over ICE's slow release of data about criminal enforcement against companies that hire illegal immigrants. "You would not think the committee would have to resort to a FOIA request from the media to get these photographs," she said.
A spokesman for Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), another committee member, added in a statement: "The perception of racial insensitivity is a serious threat to the credibility of ICE. These pictures raise serious concerns about whether ICE purposely withheld the pictures requested by Congress and whether Ms. Myers' account of the incident was completely forthcoming."
But Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the panel's senior Republican, had no objections. "She reviewed the pictures and accepts Julie Myers's explanation," spokeswoman Jen Burita said in an e-mailed response.
An ICE spokeswoman said that computer forensics workers went to considerable lengths to retrieve the digital images from agency computers and that Myers told lawmakers last fall that ICE was trying to do so in response to a FOIA request.
"The assistant secretary was . . . 100 percent honest from the beginning of this incident -- honest with the employees of ICE and honest and forthright with members of Congress and other constituents who asked her questions about this," ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.
In a Nov. 8 letter replying to questions by McCaskill, Myers said that she was "shocked and horrified" to learn that the employee was wearing makeup but that within minutes of leaving the party she instructed her chief of staff to direct ICE's events photographer "to delete all photos of the employee."
"Although I didn't know that the employee had disguised his race, I believed I had made an error in judgment in recognizing an escaped prisoner," Myers wrote.
ICE released to Congress and to reporters only redacted photographs that did not show the worker's face, citing the employee's "personal privacy." But ICE briefly showed lawmakers unaltered images on request.
After seeing the photographs, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said it was "obvious to the naked eye" that the worker was wearing makeup. "Unfortunately, I took Ms. Myers at her word," Thompson said.
"It was clear to me that the man was wearing a wig and had makeup on his face and arms," Akaka said.
Senate committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in a statement that while Myers deserved to be confirmed, "I am concerned about the Department's response to the incident, and I have asked for further explanation."