Officials warn of corruption in Border Patrol and other agencies
- More than half of CBP applicants who take lie-detector tests 'unsuitable'
By Andrew Becker
Center for Investigative Reporting
March 11, 2010
Many of the thousands of new border agents hired in recent years as part of
a push to block drug traffickers and other safety threats from entering the
country might actually pose security risks themselves, a Homeland Security
official testified today.
Speaking at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on corruption of
federal law enforcement officers, James Tomsheck, the assistant commissioner
for internal affairs at Customs and Border Protection, testified that
drug-trafficking organizations have infiltrated the nation's largest federal
law enforcement agency.
"There is a concerted effort on the part of transnational criminal
organizations to infiltrate through hiring initiatives and to compromise our
existing agents and officers," he said.
Despite efforts to combat corruption, which include lie-detector tests for
applicants and background checks for new hires and veteran employees,
Tomsheck said he worries that the problem may be too big for his agency and
others to wipe out even when they work together harmoniously.
Since 2004, more than 100 CBP agents and officers have been arrested or
indicted, officials said. Tomsheck said when he took over the internal
affairs office in 2006 the vast majority of corrupted employees had worked
with the agency for 10 years or more, but now an increasing number of
younger agents and officers have become corrupted.
CBP has expanded rapidly in recent years, nearly doubling the number of
Border Patrol agents to 20,000, which has pushed its ranks to about 58,000
Tomsheck, who appeared with top officials from the FBI and the Department of
Homeland Security, said that his agency has a backlog of 10,000 regularly
scheduled background investigations, which could almost double by the end of
the year. Nearly 100 contractors, among them retired FBI, DEA and other
federal agents who conduct the checks, were recently laid off because of
Funding shortfalls have also limited polygraph examiners to administer
lie-detector tests to 10 to 15 percent of applicants, Tomsheck said,
although the goal is to test all potential hires. But 60 percent of those
who take the test are deemed "unsuitable" to work as Border Patrol agents or
customs inspectors, Tomsheck said.
When asked if the 60 percent failure rate could apply to the other 85-90
percent of possible hires who are not tested, Tomsheck said officials had
reached that conclusion. They suspect that many of those hired during the
hiring push would be found not suitable to work for CBP if subjected to the
test, Tomsheck said.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who called the hearing and is the chair of the
subcommittee, said the percentage is "alarming."
"We're on very dangerous ground here with corruption inside federal law
enforcement," Pryor said.
Kevin Perkins, the assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative
division, did not give a specific number on how pervasive the problem is,
but offered the case of customs inspector Margarita Crispin as an example of
how valuable a corrupt official is to traffickers.
Agents suspect that Crispin joined CBP in 2003 with the intent of working
with drug smugglers. She was sentenced in 2008 to 20 years in prison and
ordered to forfeit $5 million in bribes she was paid to allow thousands of
pounds of marijuana to be smuggled through her inspection lane in El Paso.
Based on the amount of bribe money Perkins said he seems the problem of
corruption is "significantly pervasive." The FBI has expanded the number of
its anti-corruption units, which draw from other state and federal agencies,
to attack corruption, he said.
But corruption in the Homeland Security Department isn't limited to Border
Patrol agents and customs inspectors. Agents and officers of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement agency, which both runs immigration detention and is
Homeland Security's investigative arm, and employees of U.S. Citizenship and
Immigration Services, the agency that issues green cards and other
immigration benefits, have also been corrupted.
Tom Frost, the assistant inspector general for investigations at DHS, said
his office has even greater concern about the risk of corruption within CIS.
"Immigration benefits are such a valuable commodity to drug-trafficking
organizations or other persons that would do us harm," he said. "Immigration
benefits are even more lasting and profound" because they allow drug
traffickers to operate within the United States.
Pryor said that changes in the law might address the problem.
"These cartels in Mexico are very powerful," he said. "We should not
underestimate their ability to corrupt law enforcement authorities."
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