Homeland security watchdog may close troubled Texas office

Charles Edwards
Charles Edwards, the Department of Homeland Security's acting inspector general, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee in June 2011.

Credit: Donna Burton/U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The Homeland Security Department’s beleaguered watchdog might close a troubled Texas office amid a federal probe into its agents’ investigative practices, the Center for Investigative Reporting has learned.

Acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards last week placed on administrative leave five more agents from the agency’s McAllen, Texas, branch office, leaving it with just four investigators. That office has been a focus of a federal grand jury probe into allegations that agents were told to fabricate investigative reports ahead of an internal inspection last fall.

More than half of the office's 11 agents are off the job. The inspector general already placed the McAllen office’s top agent, Gene Pedraza, on administrative leave earlier this year. The remaining four agents may be moved to other offices.

“We’re considering all options regarding the most effective and efficient means to utilize the McAllen office,” said inspector general spokeswoman Marty Metelko.

Pedraza’s attorney, Larry Eastepp, did not return calls for comment. Pedraza could not be reached for comment.

Overall, the agency has placed eight employees, including two top-ranking Washington officials, on administrative leave pending the conclusion of a U.S. Department of Justice and FBI investigation.

The decision to put more agents on leave comes as Edwards tries to quell internal unrest and shore up support from Congress. The inspector general also has reached outside his agency for a temporary top investigator. John E. Dupuy, the Interior Department's assistant inspector general for investigations, will act in that role for the Department of Homeland Security inspector general starting May 21, Metelko said.

The agency’s current top investigator, Thomas M. Frost, and a deputy, John Ryan, were put on leave in late March. Frost could not be reached for comment. Ryan’s attorney, Michael Bopp, has declined to comment. 

Wayne Salzgaber, another deputy who oversaw field operations, was reassigned recently after he testified before the grand jury. A third deputy, James Gaughran, who had been acting as the assistant inspector general for investigations in place of Frost, will be replaced by Dupuy.

Gaughran will be detailed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by the end of May, while Salzgaber will go to Interpol on detail in early June, Metelko said. 

Amid this turnover, critics of the agency have said the inspector general's office needs fresh leadership. But Glenn A. Fine, who served as the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice from 2000 to 2011, said Edwards is hamstrung as an acting inspector general.

“You try to do the best you can, but you don’t have the full authority of the agency," said Fine, who served six months as an acting inspector general. "People might not be sure you’re sticking around. ... You don’t make changes. You don’t make reforms. And you have a little less gravitas. It’s an inherently difficult position to be in.”

The grand jury probe last month expanded its scope to include the agency’s Dallas office and the alleged mishandling of a confidential informant there.

The inspector general is the top authority to police waste, fraud and abuse within the Department of Homeland Security, the federal government’s third-largest agency. The watchdog has about 219 agents to ferret out misconduct among the department’s 225,000 employees.

Last week, the agency also began to transfer about 370 corruption investigations nationwide targeting Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees. Those cases were transferred to those agencies' respective internal affairs units. The transfer amounts to nearly half of the inspector general’s 760 cases that involve employees who have been identified, rather than allegations against unnamed employees. The inspector general has said he hopes the transfer is done by June 1.

Edwards testified today during a House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee hearing on ethical standards at the department that the inspector general’s investigative unit “was taxed beyond its capacity.”

In addition, the inspector general will dust off hundreds more corruption cases in which there is no known or identified employee; those cases will be returned to the internal affairs department at other homeland security agencies. The decision comes after CIR reported that a special unit known as forensic threat analysis often held investigations until the statute of limitations had expired. That practice, in turn, prevented other investigators from the FBI and homeland security agencies from investigating corruption.

Since 2004, complaints against Customs and Border Protection employees alone increased 38 percent, according to the inspector general. Overall, nearly 140 Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol employees have been indicted on or convicted of corruption-related charges since then.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's Oversight, Investigations and Management Subcommittee, said the majority of Homeland Security Department employees are honest and hard-working. "Public service is a public trust," he said. "And when you see that violated … it’s just unacceptable."

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