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Law Enforcement Panel Says Border Agency Vulnerable To Corruption Scandal

Photo by Associated Press

Pedestrians crossing from Mexico into the United States at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry wait in line, Dec. 10, 2015.

A panel of law enforcement experts found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has made little movement on a call to sharply increase the number of agents assigned to investigate internal corruption, calling it a mistake that could lead to a major scandal if it isn't addressed more quickly.

The panel, led by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Karen Tandy, urged the nation's largest law enforcement agency in June 2015 to more than double the number of internal affairs criminal investigators to 550 from about 200. It said the agency's 2017 budget calls for an increase of only 30 investigators, meaning it would take about a decade to fulfill the recommendation at that pace.

"This leaves CBP vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation," the panel wrote in its 58-page final report.

The report notes other anti-corruption efforts — steps to temporarily transfer 57 internal affairs investigators from other agencies within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and for the FBI to commit unspecified resources — but it urges swifter action and more authority for the Customs and Border Protection commissioner to tackle allegations of wrongdoing by its 60,000 employees.

"Currently there is no one who the Secretary of Homeland Security can clearly hold accountable for seeing to it that corruption does not take root within CBP and that our national security interests at our nation's border are not compromised by corrupt CBP personnel," the panel wrote.

A massive hiring surge during the past decade has fueled concerns about corruption, use of force and lack of transparency at Customs and Border Protection, which was created in 2003 as part of the Department of Homeland Security to oversee the Border Patrol and manage the nation's ports of entry.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson created the Customs and Border Protection Integrity Advisory Panel in December 2014 to address the concerns. The 10-member panel, which includes a former FBI director and former Tucson, Arizona, police chief, was to submit its final report Tuesday to the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

The report's stark language exposes a rift with the Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog over how many internal affairs investigators are needed at Customs and Border Protection. In a memo attached to the report, the Homeland Security inspector general's office strongly questions the panel's findings and methods.

The panel said it based its recommendation on the number of internal affairs investigators at other law enforcement agencies, including the New York Police City Department and the former U.S. Customs Service.

The panel also criticized the slow pace of employee discipline to deal with allegations ranging from excessive use of force to spousal abuse and alcohol use. The average case takes 1½ years to resolve.

"The CBP discipline system is broken," the panel wrote. "The length of time from receiving an allegation of misconduct to imposing final discipline is far too long."

Immigrant rights groups in San Diego praised the report. Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Borders Communities Coalition, said the report highlights "systemic failures in oversight and accountability" at the agency, and issued the following statement:

Border communities are all too familiar with the agency's silence to complaints of abuse of power and failure to transparently investigate excessive use of force.

We urge the Obama Administration to immediately instruct DHS to adopt these clear solutions for ending over a decade of abusive and criminal practices by the largest police force in the United States. The time is now for CBP Commissioner Kerlikowske to act on these recommendations without delay and hold itself accountable to police best practices.

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