Whistleblower case probed

By Andrew Becker
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When a high-ranking immigration official in Florida learned last year that a local sub-office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had reportedly mishandled hundreds of sensitive naturalization and citizenship certificates, she was concerned. But after Maria Aran, the chief of staff for the agency's Miami district, decided the agency wasn't doing enough to address the problem, she sounded the alarm.

She blew the whistle - a little too hard.

Instead of sending one e-mail to the agency's Office of Security and Integrity, Aran mistakenly sent her complaint to 300 agents nationwide.

The Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that shields government whistleblowers, is investigating Aran's assertion that her supervisors retaliated, revoked her responsibilities and threatened to fire her if she didn't take an involuntary job transfer to another Florida office. An independent administrative appeals agency last month ordered a 45-day stay of the reassignment, pending the completion of the Special Counsel's investigation.

The stay, which began Sept. 7, was granted by the Merit Systems Protection Board, which also ordered USCIS to return Aran to her duties as chief of staff. The Department of Homeland Security agency administers immigration and naturalization documents.

"There are reasonable grounds to believe that the agency decided to reassign Ms. Aran because of her protected disclosures," board chair Susan Tsui Grundmann wrote in her stay order.

But while USCIS officials concede that there were security problems and other issues related to the documents, they deny any retaliation against Aran, and say, in fact, the agency - and Aran - knew of the problems months before her disclosure.

Aran's attorney acknowledged that personality conflicts not related to the documents may have existed between Aran and her supervisor, but questioned the agency's decision to transfer Aran long after those initial tensions arose.

The watchdog agency's investigation is nearly complete, according to its Aug. 30 stay request. The Special Counsel's office declined to comment further.

"There is reasonable basis to believe that Aran's allegations may have also evidenced a danger to public health and safety due to the serious national security implications inherent in losing or mishandling hundreds of naturalization certificates including blank certificates," Special Counsel attorney Anne Gullick wrote in the stay.

Aran, who through her attorney declined to be interviewed, reported to the agency's internal affairs office in June 2009 that more than 600 naturalization and citizenship certificates were routinely left unsecured, unaccounted for, or issued without the record-keeping necessary to counter fraudulent use, according to government records.

"If someone is involved in nefarious activities, and they get a bunch of naturalization certificates, they can give anyone the ticket to walk around the country unfettered,"Aran's attorney, Daniel N. Vara Jr., said.

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