SAN DIEGO — The former, longtime national leader of the union representing Border Patrol agents on Friday called a federal indictment alleging that he siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars in union funds "a wild goose chase."
Terence J. Bonner said the charges were a political vendetta for his long record of criticizing the federal government's record on border security, dating back to the early days of his tenure as president of the National Border Patrol Council from 1989 until his retirement last year.
A grand jury in San Diego accused Bonner of submitting expense vouchers for meals, car rentals, luggage, books and other union-related activities when traveling for personal reasons.
Bonner, 59, sought reimbursement for visits to his mistress in Chicago, his family, hockey games and other sporting events unrelated to the union, according to Thursday's indictment. He allegedly sought wages for time when he was downloading pornography at home.
Bonner was feisty in a lengthy statement and interview, saying the government owes him at least $100,000 for expenses that the Border Patrol refused to pay.
"(The federal government) will continue lying to the American people about the security of our borders, an honest man's reputation will be destroyed, and millions of tax dollars will be wasted in an ineffectual wild goose chase," he said.
Bonner, who is widely known as T.J., was ordered to make an initial court appearance Monday on 12 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
George McCubbin, who succeeded Bonner as union president, said the alleged corruption was limited to Bonner.
"Obviously this is going to be a black eye on our organization. For years, we were always above any of this. It's clear this is an isolated incident," McCubbin said. "There are no other union officers involved. This is strictly on T.J."
McCubbin said the union's executive board learned about the investigation in April 2010, shortly before Bonner retired from the Border Patrol after 33 years with the agency. Bonner was due to leave the Border Patrol anyway because he just turned 57, the agency's mandatory retirement age.
The union allowed him to remain as president until his two-year term expired in March 2011, at which time it tersely stated that Bonner was no longer authorized to speak for them.
"It was the longest year of my life," Bonner said.
Bonner said he submitted six years' worth of travel expenses for more than $100,000 at the end of 2009 and filed a grievance when the Border Patrol refused to pay.
McCubbin said the expense reports triggered Border Patrol's suspicions and sparked the federal investigation. The union's executive board refused to pay for Bonner's attorney when a subpoena was served.
The indictment also accused the union's secretary-treasurer of conspiring with Bonner, although it does not name the person. Mark Conover, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the person has not been charged and declined to say if there were other targets.
McCubbin, who has been a longtime union officer, said Bonner got special treatment from the union treasurer, who no longer holds the position.
"When we submitted expense vouchers, he never questioned anything for T.J. If we submitted something and forgot a receipt, he'd circle it and send it back to us. He didn't do that with T.J.," he said.
Bonner said McCubbin's remarks as "whining."
"(The union) definitely threw me under the wheels of the bus," he said.
Bonner, who lives near San Diego in the small border town of Campo, was the union's voice at a time when the agency grew to more than 20,000 agents and put up hundreds of miles of fencing and other barriers along the U.S. border with Mexico. His outspoken advocacy for better working conditions repeatedly won him re-election.
The union, which is part the American Federation of Government Employees and AFL-CIO, has 14,000 members who pay monthly dues of $56, according to the indictment.
Bonner allegedly signed off on policies that benefited him and other officers, such as clothing allowances and up to $800 a year to buy gifts for spouses and children. One policy allowed union officers to claim lost wages for Sundays, holidays, nights and overtime if they provided proof to the secretary-treasurer that they were doing union work.
The indictment listed $87,863 in false claims for lost wages from 2007 to 2010 and $48,067 in other false expense reports during that same period. It says he "obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in union funds to which he was not entitled."
"Siphoning hundreds of thousands of dollars from hard-working fellow Border Patrol agents, many of whom put their lives on the line every day to protect this country, is a particularly troubling form of corruption that must be addressed," said Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego.