The Homeland Security Department is trying to reassure lawmakers that its efforts to prevent corruption, in the wake of scandals at the General Service Administration and Secret Service, are working.
But for DHS, a spate of recent problems has spurred fresh questions about problems that may involve criminal activity among the ranks of federal law enforcement agents.
“Since 2004, over 130 agents of the United States Customs and Border Protection have been arrested, charged or otherwise prosecuted on corruption charges,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management. “Allegations and convictions include alien and drug smuggling, money laundering and conspiracy. The DHS acting inspector general, Charles Edwards, states Mexican drug cartels attempt to corrupt DHS employees and this impacts national security.”
McCaul, who oversaw a recent hearing about ethics at DHS, said claims of criminal activity also extend into the workforce at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where agents allegedly accepted bribes from drug traffickers, and the Transportation Security Administration, where employees were accused of giving drug couriers unfettered access through Los Angeles International Airport.
CBP lie detection
To prevent corruption, CBP screens job applicants with polygraph exams, hoping to uncover problems that could compromise its workforce or national security. The program has paid dividends, officials say. “We had a case where … [an] applicant smuggled several bundles of marijuana within the United States and was paid $200,” said CBP Acting Deputy Commissioner Thomas Winkowski. “On at least three occasions, the applicant personally unloaded duffle bags of drugs from vehicles and stored them at his residence. And the applicant also accepted $1,000 in exchange for allowing vehicles loaded with marijuana to be stored at his home.”
CBP rejected the applicants request for a law enforcement position.
Since 2008, CBP has screened about 10,000 applicants using the polygraph. And while the program helps to prevent bad actors from entering the agency’s law enforcement workforce, leaders have discovered that some agents become corrupt usually about nine years into their careers, Winkowski told the subcommittee. To address the problem, CBP is working to expand the polygraph program to periodically screen employees throughout their careers.
TSA background checks
While CBP is working to prevent corruption in part by using polygraphs, TSA says its background checks have kept potential bad actors out of its workforce. “In the last three years, our background checks have disqualified more than 5,600 applicants, who were subject to criminal history checks, financial checks and other mechanisms to make sure that we’re not bringing people in who have vulnerabilities,” said James Duncan, assistant administrator of TSA’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
Duncan also referenced an incident at the Honolulu airport that involved TSA officers who did not screen thousands of bags before allowing them onto airplanes.
“Some of the working groups that we have created in the wake of Honolulu have focused on identifying tools the local leadership can use to prevent and detect violations of our security protocols,” Duncan said.
TSA is working on metrics and reports that field leaders can use to uncover problems before they blossom into full-blown corruption.
ICE education and outreach
Another crucial element to preventing corruption is educating employees about the rules, said Timothy Moynihan, assistant director of the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility.
“All new employees go through ethics and integrity training,” Moynihan said. “We have an annual requirement to take an integrity awareness program. … All new supervisors get extensive integrity training at the ICE academy.”
Moynihan said ICE’s outreach and education also attempts to explain how employees can report potential misconduct. But McCaul is not convinced the agency has put all its puzzle pieces in the right place, saying some of the ICE manuals lack specific ethics guidance for employees.
“A lot of this is just common sense, though. … Public service is a public trust. And when you see that violated — in these egregious examples — it’s just unacceptable,” he said.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.