Facing an overwhelming backlog of corruption probes, the Department of Homeland Security's watchdog agency will unload almost half of its investigations of employees suspected of wrongdoing, officials said last week.
The department's acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, said he will transfer control of approximately 360 corruption and misconduct case against employees at two agencies -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection. Internal affairs offices at the agencies will instead handle the investigations.
Edwards said in a statement that the transfer was part of his office's commitment to ensure "that all allegations of employee corruption are fully investigated."
His office has a backlog of about 760 corruption or misconduct cases at those two agencies alone. Edwards is transferring control of cases that involve specific employees who have been named, rather than allegations of misconduct by unidentified employees.
Homeland security officials said they would prioritize cases that threaten the nation's security and focus on clearing any employees who have been falsely accused. Edwards did not describe specific allegations against homeland security employees. They could include customs officers allegedly accepting bribes to allow drugs into the country or crimes unrelated to their jobs, such as possessing child pornography.
The beleaguered inspector general's office, which has been under scrutiny by a federal grand jury, identified last month more than 80 corruption cases at a Texas field office that needed to be re-examined. Officials in turn reached out to other federal agencies, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, for assistance.
The transfer of cases from the inspector general -- which investigates waste, fraud and corruption within the Department of Homeland Security -- is expected to be completed by June 1. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the agency, which will lead the transferred investigations and has 260 agents assigned to investigate employee misconduct, can handle the influx of new cases from the inspector general.
Homeland security officials have praised Edwards, who became acting inspector general in February 2011, for his efforts to steer the agency in the right direction. They say he has fostered cooperation with other law enforcement agencies to investigate corruption and end turf wars. They also pointed to an August agreement intended to ease tensions between the inspector general and Customs and Border Protection on corruption probes.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Matthew Chandler said the department's primary goal is to ensure that corruption is thoroughly investigated. "We expect this effort to lead to an even better working relationship between agencies, the elimination of the inherited backlog and significant acceleration in the investigation of corruption allegations," Chandler wrote in an email.
Despite being taxed by its caseload, the inspector general's decision to unburden itself of investigations excludes the FBI, which has roughly 700 agents assigned to public corruption cases, including some 120 along the southwest border. FBI officials were not available for comment. The inspector general's office has fought for years with the FBI and other homeland security agencies over the responsibility to police corruption.
Current and former officials were skeptical that working relations among agencies tasked with ferreting out corruption would improve unless Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano or lawmakers give the matter sustained attention. In recent years, members of Congress have held hearings on border corruption and made inquiries into cooperation among those agencies that police it, but have said they would wait for the outcome of the grand jury probe.
W. Ralph Basham, a former Customs and Border Protection commissioner from 2006 to 2009, said he expected the inspector general to dump outdated and low-profile cases. "That's what I would do -- offload the dogs to get them off the plate," he said. "What happens is -- and in my opinion it's disgraceful -- they get around to investigate these things, and the witnesses are gone."
Cases hit roadblocks
While the inspector general has conceded the transfer of a few hundred corruption cases, hundreds more may never be investigated because delays have pushed the cases beyond the statute of limitations.
According to documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, corruption and misconduct cases that were under control of a special inspector general unit -- called "forensic threat analysis" -- may have ended up shelved without resolution. Those cases have typically involved unidentified employees.
Instead of sharing information about the case with the FBI or other homeland security agencies, the forensic threat analysis unit retains the case until the statute of limitations expires, the documents show. That effectively prevents other homeland security agencies or the FBI from offering new leads, connecting tips or doing their own investigative work.
Figures provided by the inspector general show the analysis unit has nearly 340 cases in its inventory. The agency did not provide answers to questions regarding how many new investigative leads the unit has generated or the number returned to investigators for follow-up. The inspector general's office also declined to comment on whether it has held cases until the statute of limitations expires.
Overall, the inspector general had 2,564 open investigations as of Sept. 30, 2011, the end of the last fiscal year, up by nearly a quarter compared to the year before. The watchdog has 219 investigators, of whom just fewer than 200 are stationed in 33 offices nationwide.
Complaints against Customs and Border Protection employees have increased 38 percent since 2004. The nation's largest federal law enforcement agency with about 60,000 employees, Customs and Border Protection has 203 agents to police misconduct, but the inspector general has the right of first refusal. The majority of the 137 employees who have been indicted or convicted since October 2004 were stationed along the southwest border with Mexico.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also had a flurry of corruption and criminal misconduct cases in recent years. Last week, a former intelligence chief for the agency became the fifth employee to plead guilty in an embezzlement scheme that bilked the government of more than $600,000.
Trouble in Texas
The decision to offload investigations comes amid an expanding grand jury probe into the practices of the overburdened inspector general. The investigation, led by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, has focused in recent months on allegations of criminal misconduct in the agency's McAllen, Texas, office, including the possible fabrication of investigative reports ahead of an office inspection last fall.
Investigators have broadened the inquiry to include the agency's Dallas office and the alleged mistreatment of a confidential informant who was deported to Mexico. Agents from Dallas and Washington were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury in recent weeks. Ralph Isenberg, a Dallas businessman aiding the informant, said the FBI has requested an interview with the person.
Amid the grand jury probe, several employees have been placed on administrative leave or re-assigned.
In late March, Edwards placed his top criminal investigator and a deputy on administrative leave pending the conclusion of the FBI and Justice Department investigation. The head of the McAllen office was put on leave earlier this year. Another top deputy, Wayne Salzgaber, who oversees field operations, was re-assigned in late April to other duties after receiving a subpoena and testifying before the grand jury.
Inspector general spokeswoman Marty Metelko declined to discuss ongoing investigations or personnel matters.
The inspector general's policy is to open investigations on all allegations of corruption involving department employees. But the huge volume of cases has buried the watchdog agency. Rather than delegate the workload, the inspector general often held onto cases. As a result, corruption was not fully investigated or cases languished for years, agents say.
Amid this, the inspector general's top investigators have been reluctant to work with the FBI in border-related corruption cases.
The FBI, whose top criminal priority is to investigate public corruption, has established 21 border corruption task forces, 13 in the southwest alone. Homeland security agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, have participated in many of those task forces.
But homeland security officials have barred Customs and Border Protection from sharing information regarding potential corruption without the inspector general's approval. This policy is backed up by the highest reaches of the Department of Homeland Security. They believe only the inspector general -- not Customs and Border Protection -- should share information with the FBI regarding corruption investigations.
"Recently, an FBI official requested that CBP begin providing notice of criminal allegations directly to the FBI," the department's general counsel, Ivan Fong, wrote in a confidential April 16 memo.
"Such notice is not legally required and would in fact be inconsistent" with the August agreement that was supposed to ease tensions between the inspector general and Customs and Border Protection on corruption probes, Fong wrote.
Officials with the inspectors general's office believe bypassing the watchdog agency by going directly to Customs and Border Protection for information could hamper their investigations. Other agents, however, view the inspector general as ill-equipped to root out corruption.
There is also a mutual sense of distrust that the agencies are not sharing information on new investigations, despite specific guidelines issued by the U.S. attorney general on how soon the inspector general and the FBI must notify each other when a case is initiated. Fong wrote that the watchdog agency had properly notified the FBI "in at least 98 percent of criminal investigations." The inspector general, however, did not believe the FBI was as consistent.
Basham, the former customs commissioner, said it was ridiculous for the Department of Homeland Security to isolate the FBI from corruption investigations.
"There's lots of cooperation between the FBI and (Customs and Border Protection) right now," he said. "They share information with regard to the protection of the United States and its borders. It's bizarre that they would not share information with the FBI for criminal investigations. It makes no sense."