Homeland Security IG in conflict with agencies on corruption probes

By Andrew Becker
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; B03

Offices charged with ferreting out corruption among U.S. border and immigration employees are engaged in a turf battle that has delayed some investigations and threatens to undermine a host of enforcement actions, records and interviews show.

The conflict pits the inspector general's office in the Department of Homeland Security against the agency's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division and the FBI.

The turf battle came to a head about a week before a failed Christmas Day terrorist attack aboard an airliner,when Assistant Inspector General Thomas M. Frost ordered the top internal affairs official at CBP to drop any investigations underway outside the inspector general's supervision.

In a Dec. 16 memo, Frost ordered James Tomsheck, the CBP commissioner for internal affairs, "to cease criminal investigations of any matter involving a DHS program or employee." Frost also ordered CBP to stop participating in task forces or sharing information with other agencies unless coordinated through the inspector general's office.

Some investigators think the order contradicts calls by the Homeland Security Department, Congress and the White House demanding increased agency cooperation. But an IG official said it was meant to improve internal-affairs inquiries.

Frost declined to comment, but his deputy, James Gaughran, said having too many investigating agencies risks intelligence leaks that can jeopardize investigators' safety.

"If there's going to be one focal point of sharing information, it should be the [inspector general]," he said.

Tomsheck, while not directly commenting on the memo, said in a statement that his office is committed to "genuine cooperation and collaboration" with other agencies to address workforce corruption.

When the memo was issued, CBP's internal affairs office was involved in about 100 criminal corruption inquiries, including joint investigations with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The cases cover allegations including taking bribes from drug traffickers and improper searches of law enforcement databases.

The memo comes as the number of corruption investigations rises. In the last fiscal year, the inspector general's office opened more than 80 corruption cases involving immigration and border officers in the four states adjoining Mexico, the most since 2005, according to statistics obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Nationwide, the office had more than 230 ongoing corruption investigations as of the end of the last fiscal year. The FBI has more than 110 open border-related cases.

The United States has spent billions of dollars in recent years to bolster border enforcement, including a doubling of the number of Border Patrol agents. Officials say the crackdown has spurred drug and human-smuggling gangs to redouble efforts to recruit agents. More than 100 CBP employees have been arrested, indicted or convicted of corruption-related crimes since October 2004.

Friction between the inspector general and other agencies has roots in San Diego, where a federal anti-corruption task force began about 15 years ago. San Diego is also where the FBI has more open corruption cases than anywhere else in the country, said Keith A. Byers, who until recently was the agency's national coordinator of border corruption task forces. He said information sharing is critical. San Diego is home to the busiest U.S. land border crossing, according to CBP.

Tension persists, however, over cases such as that of Border Patrol agents Raul and Fidel Villarreal, brothers suspected of assisting human-smugglers. Both have pleaded not guilty to bribery, human-smuggling and other charges.

The task force joined an investigation into the brothers' activities launched by the inspector general's office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS's investigative arm.

But the squads eventually parted ways.

Investigators say too many people knew about the probe, raising suspicions that the brothers were tipped.

CBP has added more than 200 internal affairs agents since 2006. The FBI in the past year has expanded the number of task forces focused on uncovering border corruption from six to 14 and hopes to create around 20 nationwide. Gaughran said the inspector general's office has 200 agents assigned to investigate more than 200,000 DHS employees. The FBI has about 120 agents working the southwest border.

Part of the debate is whether CBP internal affairs agents have the authority to seek and use wiretaps, search warrants and other tools. ICE and the inspector general's office have resisted CBP's efforts to have such authority because they fear it would encroach on their investigative turf, said Ralph Basham, a retired CBP commissioner.

Former ICE chief Julie Myers Wood said the issue is more complicated. Anti-corruption efforts need more funding and focus, Myers said. But she balked at giving CBP agents criminal-investigator status because she said it would blur responsibilities.

In San Diego, Michael Skerlos, a supervising federal prosecutor assigned to mediate task force issues, said the U.S. attorney's office thinks the collaborative model is the best for rooting out corruption. Skerlos added that he has spent the past six months increasing communication among the task force agencies.

"It's dangerous for different agencies to work [separately] on the same case. It's inefficient and wholly ineffective," he said.

Becker is a reporter for the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif.

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