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House Subcommittee Plans Hearing to Examine Homeland Security watchdog

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A U.S. House subcommittee plans to hold a hearing next month to examine the Department of Homeland Security's troubled watchdog office, according to letters sent to prospective witnesses last week.

The purpose of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing is "to review investigations and case management" at the department's Office of Inspector General, wrote U.S. Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Organization, Efficiency and Financial Management.

The hearing, slated for Aug. 1, follows reports in the spring by the Center for Investigative Reporting regarding a federal grand jury investigation into alleged misconduct involving fabricated investigative reports at an inspector general branch office in Texas, and other practices within the overall agency. The inspector general is assigned to police waste, fraud and abuse related to the federal government's third-largest department.

"This hearing will focus on solutions to ensure these investigations are properly conducted and resolved," Platts wrote in the July 13 letter. "It will also address the status of several hundred DHS OIG cases referred to the U.S. Customs and Border (Protection) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

CIR reported that as part of the fallout from the probe, led by the Justice Department and FBI, hundreds of backlogged corruption and misconduct investigations would be transferred from the beleaguered and overburdened inspector general to other homeland security agencies' internal affairs offices.

The subcommittee has invited the Homeland Security Department's acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, to testify. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner David Aguilar and ICE Acting Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale also have been called. All are expected to testify.

Officials from the three agencies declined to comment. William Hillburg, a spokesman for the inspector general, added: "We do not discuss hearings in advance."

In articles in April and May that appeared on the Huffington Post, CIR reported on allegations that agents in a McAllen, Texas, branch office were told to fabricate investigative reports to show progress on misconduct cases involving department employees ahead of an office inspection last fall. Two high-ranking officials in Washington were placed on administrative leave after CIR began inquiring about the grand jury probe. The top agent in McAllen was previously put on administrative leave.

"The Subcommittee will also examine DHS OIG's actions following allegations that OIG officials falsified case documents at its McAllen, Texas field office in 2011," Platt wrote.

The inspector general decided to unload nearly half of the office's active investigations concerning ICE and Customs and Border Protection employees to those agencies' respective internal affairs offices. The transferred cases involved named agents and officers, rather than unidentified or unknown employees. Edwards told lawmakers that the number was about 370 cases nationwide.

As of March, the inspector general's office had 2,361 open investigations, according to the letter. The inspector general, meanwhile, had about 219 agents as of May. During a House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee hearing in May on ethical standards at the department, Edwards testified that his office's investigative staff was "taxed beyond its capacity" by complaints and case openings, much of which he attributed to an expanded department.

Tensions have flared over the years between the inspector general's office and other homeland security agencies, particularly Customs and Border Protection. The two agencies signed an agreement last August intended to ease the friction and further identify roles and responsibilities, but agents say the agreement has not resolved those issues.

Since October 2004, roughly 140 Customs and Border Protection employees, which includes the U.S. Border Patrol, have been charged with or convicted of corruption-related crimes.

Current and former inspector general agents say that despite a policy to open investigations on all allegations of corruption, overwhelmed agents had received orders to not share information or work collaboratively with other agencies that investigate corruption, such as the FBI and Customs and Border Protection's internal affairs office.

The inspector general is even more short-handed since about 10 employees, including top officials within the inspector general's headquarters, have been placed on administrative leave or transferred outside the agency as a result of the grand jury probe. Among those on leave are the inspector general's top criminal investigator, Thomas M. Frost, and a deputy, John Ryan.

The agency also launched its own independent investigation into allegations of U.S. Secret Service agents' misconduct involving prostitutes ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Colombia in April. Dozens of agents were assigned to investigate the allegations and review the Secret Service's own internal inquiry.

Some eyebrows rose when the inspector general's office said it would monitor - rather than investigate - the Secret Service's own internal investigation launched shortly after the scandal became public. Frost and Ryan are both former Secret Service agents.

The inspector general also reached outside the office for a replacement for Frost, tapping John Dupuy, an assistant inspector general with the Department of the Interior, to oversee investigations.

This story was produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at cironline.org. Contact the reporter at abecker@cironline.org.

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