By Andrew Becker
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; B3
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.
USCIS launched an internal investigation after Aran's disclosure. The probe found last November that the district's Oakland Park sub-office had "numerous problem areas and lapses in the handling of certificates," according to the stay request.
USCIS spokesman Bill Wright said the allegation that naturalization certificates were lost is false and national security was never at risk. "Improvements were needed in the office's record-keeping practices to accurately account for all naturalization certificates. Those improvements were instituted," Wright said in a statement.
He also denied the allegations that Aran was a whistleblower and that she faced retaliation. He said the agency knew about the issue in February 2009 and had begun to address the problems before Aran's disclosure. The agency conducted an earlier review in April 2009, according to agency officials.
Aran, however, feared her supervisors weren't adequately addressing the problems, Vara said, so she sent her e-mail.
USCIS district director Linda Swacina confronted Aran about the e-mail, according to the Special Counsel's stay request. Later, the then-acting Southeast regional director for USCIS, Rosemary Melville, reassigned Aran to a position that had other qualified applicants. Aran had 10 days to accept the assignment, or face possible termination, records show.
"While Swacina and Melville have indicated in investigative interviews that Aran is being reassigned for performance-related reasons, they were unable to provide any documentary proof," Gullick, the Special Counsel attorney, wrote in the stay request.
The proposed move had no relation to the record-keeping issues or Aran's complaint, Wright said. The transfer would have put Aran in charge of another field office, he said.
Swacina acknowledged in the management response to the internal investigation that the Oakland Park field office, which was established in December 2008, did not have necessary procedures to manage its workload, resulting in "multiple vulnerabilities."
The agency is instituting national standards for handling of the sensitive documents, a USCIS official said.
Andrew Becker is a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting.