Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Crimes by Homeland Security agents stir alert

Crimes by Homeland Security agents stir alert

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection is supposed to stop these types of crimes. Instead, so many of its officers have been charged with committing those crimes themselves that their boss in Washington recently issued an alert about the ''disturbing events'' and the ``increase in the number of employee arrests.''

Thomas S. Winkowski, assistant commissioner of field operations, wrote a memo to more than 20,000 officers nationwide noting that employees must behave professionally at all times -- even when not on the job.

''It is our responsibility to uphold the laws, not break the law,'' Winkowski wrote in the Nov. 16 memo obtained by The Miami Herald.

Winkowski's memo cites employee arrests involving domestic violence, DUI and drug possession. But court records show Customs officers and other Department of Homeland Security employees from South Florida to the Mexican border states have been charged with dozens of far more serious offenses.

Among them: A Customs and Border Protection officer at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was charged in February with conspiring to assist a New York drug ring under investigation by tapping into sensitive federal databases.

Winkowski, a former director of field operations in Miami, called the misconduct ''unacceptable.'' He told The Miami Herald that while he wrote the memo because of an uptick in employee arrests last fall, he didn't believe the problem was pervasive.

''Do I believe this is widespread in our organization? No, I do not,'' he said in an interview Tuesday. ``Are there examples where we fall short? Yes.''

Two highly controversial issues, illegal immigration and national security, have thrust the Department of Homeland Security into the public eye as it labors to prevent another terrorist attack in the post-9/11 era.

The bureaucratic behemoth grew out of a controversial consolidation five years ago of several agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Employees of both joined either Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known for their acronyms CBP and ICE.

CBP handles the border, airports and seaports, while ICE investigates immigration and customs law violators.

''We as an agency are constantly policing ourselves so that the public trust is not diminished as a result of inappropriate activity, whether it's on the job, off the job, criminal or not criminal,'' said Zachary Mann, a special agent and spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in Miami.

Some Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees also have been caught up in episodes of alleged misconduct. But Anthony Mangione, the special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami, said he was not aware of any increase in criminal or administrative actions ``even though we have had a substantial increase in personnel since the merger.''

UNDER WRAPS

Federal authorities normally keep administrative incidents quiet. But officials cannot control publicity in the event of serious criminal behavior, like the February case involving the Border Protection officer at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Elizabeth Moran-Toala, a six-year veteran, allegedly accessed an electronic database known as Treasury Enforcement Communications System, a tool to stop illegal drug imports.

According to an indictment, she is accused of tapping into the system several times to pass along information to a Delta Airlines baggage handler who was conspiring with a drug ring to transport cocaine and heroin from the Dominican Republic to New York. Moran-Toala, 36, was transferred to New York in February for prosecution.

Other recent South Florida cases -- mirroring a pattern along border states -- have involved officers and agents accepting payoffs for migrant smuggling, drug trafficking, witness tampering, embezzlement and rape.

Agency managers say these cases reflect individual criminal behavior, not the culture of the agencies.

But some longtime employees said administrative incidents, like hostile confrontations or heavy drinking, may reflect the low morale and intense rivalries following the merger of federal agencies under Homeland Security.

Some employees from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service are the most vocal in their complaints. They bitterly denounce employees who came from the old Customs Service for ''seizing control'' of both CBP and ICE, ''lording it over'' former INS employees and showing disdain toward immigration-related work.

Expected to improve efficiency, the merger has instead spawned tension. Both Border Protection and Customs Enforcement scored near the bottom in a 2007 survey of employee satisfaction at 222 federal government agencies.

''It's become a cultural clash, tensions between officers from the merged agencies,'' said a Customs and Border Protection officer who asked not to be identified because he did not have authorization to speak publicly. ``There's low morale and tension. Some people drink; others take it out on their colleagues or supervisors. It's no fun anymore.''

Mangione dismissed the notion that employee misbehavior is a result of post-merger friction. ``It's somebody being a criminal.''

Mangione, who came from Customs, noted Gabriel Garcia, second-in-command in the Miami Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, came from INS.

ATTACK AT PARTY

The tension may have been a factor in a Jan. 11 brawl between two ICE employees at a Broward police association hall. During a retirement party, an ICE supervisor with a Customs background allegedly attacked an ICE agent with an INS background.

According to an internal document on the episode obtained by The Miami Herald, ICE group supervisor Mack Strong assaulted ICE senior special agent Francisco Meneses at the party.

The altercation began when Strong used profanity to refer to another officer, also from INS, and Meneses asked Strong not to use such an expletive.

''Strong came at me again, grabbing me and throwing me down to the floor, where he continued to physically strike me with his fists,'' Meneses wrote in a memo that went to Mangione.

Neither Meneses nor Strong wanted to speak on the record.

Mangione said the case is being investigated: `` It was turned over to the Office of Professional Responsibility and there it lies.''

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