Dozens of corruption investigations within the Department of Homeland Security are getting a fresh look by federal officials, amid reports that some internal watchdog agents falsified records at a Texas field office, the Center for Investigative Reporting has learned.
Officials from the department's Office of the Inspector General, the watchdog agency, met last week in Texas with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and other homeland security agencies to discuss re-examining more than 80 criminal misconduct investigations, sources familiar with the meeting said.
Those internal investigations about potential misconduct by homeland security employees had been handled by the inspector general's McAllen, Texas, field office. But the office has drawn the attention of the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice, and a federal grand jury in Washington has convened to hear testimony on the matter.
The fresh review of corruption cases comes as U.S. lawmakers expressed concern over the reports about potential misconduct in the McAllen field office, where agents may have fabricated "investigative activity" to show progress on misconduct cases involving homeland security employees, officials said.
The office of Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Lieberman was "deeply concerned" about the allegations, first reported by CIR.
Lieberman said they "underscore the urgent need to get a permanent DHS IG confirmed by the Senate and installed at the Department." The acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, has been in his position since Feb. 27, 2011. The previous inspector general, Richard Skinner, retired in early 2011.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., minority leader of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would wait for the conclusion of the investigations, but added that "an Inspector General's office is no place for corruption of any kind." The office of Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who has called for Senate hearings on border corruption, said he would consider holding additional hearings on the McAllen matter this summer.
Marty Metelko, a spokeswoman for the inspector general's office, declined to comment.
Three inspector general employees, including the agency's top investigator, have been placed on administrative leave pending the conclusion of the investigation into McAllen. Thomas M. Frost, the assistant inspector general for investigations, was placed on administrative leave on March 29 along with a deputy, John Ryan.
Ryan's attorney, Michael Bopp, is a former legislative director for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Bopp, who also served as staff director of the committee, said he had no comment on whether his client has been notified by the FBI that he was the target of a criminal probe. Collins' office also declined to comment.
Since October 2004, 137 Customs and Border Protection employees have been indicted on or convicted of corruption-related charges -- many coming in recent years as the Border Patrol doubled in size. Most recently, Border Patrol agent Ricardo Montalvo was arrested last week in El Paso, Texas, on charges of purchasing firearms and ammunition to be smuggled into Mexico. He has pleaded not guilty.
The inspector general's office in South Texas, which includes McAllen and Laredo branch offices, has more than 150 open investigations, half of which involve an allegation without a named subject, according to internal figures. Overall, the agency had more than 2,500 open cases as of Sept. 30, 2011, according to its most recent report to Congress.
The U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of Texas, which has jurisdiction over the McAllen office, doesn't have any pending investigations from the local inspector general's office, said spokeswoman Angela Dodge. She said she had no other information on whether the U.S. attorney's office is accepting cases referred for prosecution from the inspector general's McAllen office or if there are concerns about agents from that office testifying.
In recent years, the inspector general has wrestled with the FBI and the internal affairs office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the largest federal law enforcement agency, over who has responsibility to investigate criminal misconduct and corruption.
In a June 2010 letter to Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., then-Inspector General Skinner described the relationship between his office and Customs and Border Protection as "intractable."
"CBP IA is engaged in activity that not only is hampering OIG's investigative efforts, but poses serious legal consequences for the entire Department," Skinner wrote. Other issues included withholding information, duplications of efforts and confusion among stakeholders, he wrote.
But Susan Ginsburg, who served on the 9/11 Commission staff and focused on terrorist travel and border controls, said Customs and Border Protection has a well-working internal affairs unit that the inspector general has undercut.
"Internal affairs has a model program because it uses investigative information to develop analytic insight for policymakers and improve preventive measures," she said. "As a consequence, it's not in the public interest to remove (internal affairs) from the business of ferreting out corruption."