On a gorgeous spring Thursday, kids on class trips were all over the Capitol grounds, many in matching T-shirts, posing for pictures on the granite steps.
They were having a great time learning history and about how government works. If they had crossed Independence Avenue and squeezed into a Cannon House Office Building hearing room, they also would have witnessed how government is not supposed to work.
A House subcommittee hearing Thursday examined Department of Homeland Security ethics standards and found them repeatedly violated. Make no mistake: Everyone who spoke stressed that almost all workers are honest and law-abiding.
“There are over 220,000 Department of Homeland Security employees who work every day to secure our homeland from dangerous threats and natural disasters,” said Rep. William R. Keating (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. “I would like to thank them for their service.”
But that isn’t good enough, not for federal agencies under the eye of Congress. A few crooked or foolish staffers draw attention from everyone else, as General Services Administration and Secret Service scandals recently have demonstrated. Keating said the number of allegations against employees investigated by just one DHS office “is staggering.”
Plus, as Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the full committee, said in a statement: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”
Testimony pointed to several weak links in the DHS chain.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight, investigations and management, set the tone for the hearing in his opening statement: “There have been many reports of federal employees wasting taxpayer dollars, and in some cases committing crimes, which erodes the trust American people have in our government. . . . We have also found criminal activity in our bureaucracies; Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel collaborating with drug smugglers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel filing fraudulent travel claims and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel stealing personal belongings of passengers.”
According to information released at the hearing: 138 CBP agents have been charged with corruption since 2004; during that same period, more than 2,000 CBP employees have been charged in other criminal cases; an ICE agent pleaded guilty to 21 criminal counts in February; a former ICE intelligence chief is accused of embezzling more than $180,000, and four other ICE employees have pleaded guilty in the scheme; and a recent 22-count indictment says Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees in Los Angeles took bribes to allow drug couriers safe passage through airport security.
Mexican drug cartels are particularly interested in getting help with border smuggling. Charles K. Edwards, the department’s acting inspector general, said “the drug trafficking organizations have turned to recruiting and corrupting DHS employees. The obvious targets of corruption are Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers who can facilitate and aid in smuggling; less obvious are those employees who can provide access to sensitive law enforcement and intelligence information, allowing the cartels to track investigative activity or vet their members against law enforcement databases.”
It’s not always a matter of turning a good officer bad. Sometimes, the bad pretend to be good just to get on the inside. “In some cases, I believe that their sole purpose in wanting to become a Customs and Border Protection officer or Border Patrol officer is to infiltrate us,” said acting CBP Deputy Commissioner Thomas Winkowski.
McCaul and Keating were pleased that Winkowski appeared to represent his agency, but they were not happy that TSA and ICE sent lower-level officials. They all emphasized what their agencies are doing to fight corruption.
To Keating, the absence of top administrators “says something about how seriously they are taking this issue, or how not seriously they’re taking this issue.”
McCaul expressed his “extreme disappointment.”
In response, DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said by e-mail that the department sent “senior agency officials, including those responsible for the day to day oversight of ethical standards and professional conduct for this hearing. . . . The Department respects Congressional oversight and we look forward to continuing to work with the Committee on this important issue.”
The hearing indicated there’s lots of work to do.
Although all allegations about DHS vice have not been proven, Keating said “they are a testament to the fact that eliminating public corruption at the Department of Homeland Security is in dire need of improvement.”