The watchdog agency that polices the Homeland Security Department for waste, fraud and abuse may have given the wrong impression on the extent of crimes committed by immigration officers, border agents and other employees in a recent summary report of its accomplishments.
Last year, the inspector general’s office for the department received and reviewed 19,848 allegations and initiated 1,389 investigations. The watchdog agency reported that investigators made 318 arrests in that time.
The report highlighted "significant investigations" of misconduct and corruption within the Department of Homeland Security, leading some to believe that hundreds of the department’s 225,000-plus employees were busted. Stories appeared in national outlets like Wired, regional newspapers such as The Brownsville Herald in Texas, the trade publication Government Executive and countless blogs.
While the inspector general’s efforts might have led to hundreds of arrests, indictments and convictions last year, the overwhelming majority involved fraud cases filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Only a fraction actually involved Homeland Security Department employees, according to the watchdog’s statistics.
According to the most recent data available, investigators last year made 325 arrests, but only 27 were employees or contractors. Of the 249 convictions claimed by the watchdog, five involved an employee or contractor. And while the agency recorded 212 people charged with a crime as a result of its investigations, the number of employees or contractors charged was 20.
Richard L. Skinner, who retired as the homeland security inspector general last year, said his former office should better differentiate employee arrests from citizens arrested for filing fraudulent FEMA claims in future reporting.
“I don’t think anyone is trying to mislead anyone, but this needs clarification,” he said. “If people are interpreting this to mean all arrests and convictions are of DHS employees, the (inspector general) needs to be more clear.”
In an email statement, the inspector general’s office emphasized that it concentrates on anyone who engages in criminal wrongdoing in an effort to “promote more effective, efficient and economical operations within the Department."
"In no place does the 'Special Report: Summary of Significant Investigations January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2011,' (OIG-12-108) statistics reflect they account solely for DHS employees," according to the inspector general's statement.
The summary report, however, mostly highlights employees of homeland security agencies who were targeted for corruption or misconduct and mentions only a handful of private citizens who defrauded the department.
Misconduct by employees of the massive Homeland Security Department has been a sustained concern for lawmakers, who have held several recent hearings on the matter. Acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards acknowledged last month in written testimony before a House Oversight subcommittee that the "majority of both complaints received and investigations initiated by the OIG, however, are for allegations of other than corruption related activity."
It's been a bumpy six months for Edwards and his investigators, as the inspector general's office has faced congressional scrutiny and a criminal investigation. Eight agents, including the agency’s top investigator and a deputy, are on administrative leave pending the outcome of a grand jury probe. The investigation stems from allegations that agents in a Texas branch office were told ahead of an internal inspection last fall to fabricate investigative activity and reports. In May, two other deputies were reassigned outside the agency.
Overwhelmed by its caseload, the inspector general also recently transferred hundreds of corruption and misconduct investigations – some of which may have been dormant for years – to the internal affairs units of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, two homeland security agencies the watchdog oversees. The inspector general's policy is to open investigations on all allegations of employee corruption or misconduct.
But the issues don’t end with corruption investigations and oversight. The agency may have inflated its claim that it had saved taxpayers nearly $200,000 in the spring on an all-hands training conference for investigators, as internal records show the agency spent more than $400,000 on travel costs alone.
And five inspection and audit reports were removed recently from the agency's website pending a review of a possible conflict of interest involving Edwards and his wife, who works for another homeland security office that the inspector general oversees. Those reports have been revised and reposted.
Acting Deputy Inspector General Carlton Mann said in an interview that the agency is not immune to criticism.
"If we’re performing poorly, we need to be criticized. We are in the business of criticizing the department for what they do," he said. "We don't mind being held accountable for our shortcomings. … We want to be transparent."
The emphasis on internal corruption and misconduct might be an indication of the focus of the agency's onetime top investigator, Thomas M. Frost. Skinner, the former inspector general, said Frost pushed to steer the agency away from investigating FEMA fraud cases because he wanted to concentrate on employee corruption and misconduct. Skinner said he thought that was a mistake.
"FEMA is very vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse, and you don't want to turn a blind eye to it," he said
Not that border corruption isn’t a major concern – recent hiring surges have brought more Border Patrol agents and customs inspectors to border regions than ever, and investigators have scrambled to maintain oversight. Edwards, the acting inspector general, reported in August that his office has had a 95 percent increase in complaints against Customs and Border Protection employees since fiscal year 2004 and a 25 percent bump between 2010 and 2011 alone.
Frost was placed on administrative leave in late March pending the outcome of the federal grand jury investigation. He could not be reached for comment.
Tom Meyer, a former special agent in charge of the inspector general’s San Francisco office who retired last year, said his office was one of three nationwide that had a significant number of FEMA fraud cases. Those investigations accounted in past years for most of the inspector general's arrest and conviction statistics, but Frost wasn't interested in those types of time-intensive probes, he said.
“We were getting big-time money back on fraud cases,” Meyer said. "But that didn't fit into what (Frost) believed we should do."