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Homeland Security watchdog omitted damaging findings from reports

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general and senior aides have asked staff members to remove damaging findings from investigative reports into domestic violence and sexual misconduct by department law enforcement officers , according to documents obtained by The New York Times and two governments. officials familiar with investigations.

An investigation found that more than 10,000 employees of Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct on the job – more than a third of respondents, according to an unpublished report. draft report dated December 2020.

The draft report also describes a trend for agencies to use cash payments, with payouts of up to $255,000, to settle sexual harassment complaints without investigating or sanctioning the perpetrators. But senior officials in the inspector general’s office objected to that finding, suggesting in written comments that it be removed from the report, which was never released.

Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari also ordered his staff to redact portions of another draft report showing that internal investigations revealed that dozens of agents working in the agencies had committed domestic violence, but that they had received “little or no discipline”. Mr. Cuffari also wanted the removal of a section stating that the agencies had “exposed victims and the public to a risk of further violence” by allowing the perpetrators to keep their firearms; including such findings, he wrote in an internal memo, would give his office the impression that he was “guessing at DHS disciplinary decisions without all the facts.”

The internal documents were first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group in Washington. The organization took the information to The Times, which confirmed its authenticity with two government officials familiar with the investigations. The draft sexual misconduct report notes that fieldwork for the investigation ended in October 2019, but the agency has not released the findings.

The Office of Inspector General did not respond to specific questions about the investigations, but defended the agency’s work in a statement.

“All reports initiated and published during” Mr. Cuffari’s tenure, the statement said, “meet appropriate quality standards.”

Asked about the omitted findings, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said the inspector general was independent of the department and that Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, made it clear “that sexual harassment and sexual assault will not be tolerated. ”

The spokesperson added that the department “has no involvement in internal OIG deliberations or decisions,” referring to the Office of Inspector General.

Mr. Cuffari, a Trump appointee who has served as inspector general since July 2019, has previously blocked investigations, against the recommendations of his staff. He has blocked investigations into the Secret Service’s role in violently dispersing protests against police brutality outside the White House in 2020, and the spread of Covid-19 at that agency. He also delayed an investigation into whether senior agency officials demoted an employee who criticized the Trump administration.

Inspectors general are independent internal watchdogs for federal departments and agencies, although they can be removed by the president. Donald J. Trump fired or demoted a number of inspectors general during his final year in office, a violation of standards that undermines the traditional independence of the office. The Biden administration had also considered removing several controversial inspectors general appointed by Mr Trump, but ultimately refused – fearing it would further erode the standards of government it pledged to restore.

The sexual misconduct and domestic violence investigations came as departmental law enforcement — specifically the Border Patrol, part of Customs and Border Protection — struggled to recruit women and advance them to leadership positions. They have been tracking high-profile incidents of sexual misconduct over the past decade.

Ed Gonzalez, President Biden’s nominee to lead ICE, faces uncertain prospects of confirmation after a police affidavit from last year surfaced accusing him of domestic violence against his wife . Mr. Gonzalez and his wife have denied the allegations.

The sexual misconduct investigation, which began before Mr. Cuffari became inspector general, included a 2018 survey of employees of the department’s police departments. Of approximately 28,000 people surveyed, more than 10,000 said they had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in their workplace.

Of those who experienced sexual harassment or misconduct, 78% said they did not report the incident.

The draft report cites more than 1,800 employee allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct perpetrated by other federal employees from October 2011 to February 2018 in the department’s police departments, including instances of ” surreptitious videotaping in bathrooms of unwelcome sexual advances and inappropriate sexual comments.

Referring to those allegations, the draft also said that department agencies “did not consistently charge and discipline employees for offenses related to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement had an inordinate number of reported incidents, with 445 allegations and cases of sexual misconduct for an agency with fewer than 20,000 employees. By contrast, Customs and Border Protection, which has about 63,000 employees, reported 382 incidents.

The agencies paid 21 employees nearly $1 million in settlements of sexual harassment complaints over six years. Inspectors found “in most cases” no record of investigation or disciplinary action in these cases, according to the draft sexual misconduct report.

Kristen Fredricks, Chief of Staff to the Inspector General, objected to the inclusion of this finding in the final report.

“Faulty premise,” Ms Fredricks wrote in her comments to the draft document. “Why/how do you correlate settlements with investigations and disciplinary actions???”

Customs and Border Protection paid $255,000 in 2016 to settle a sexual harassment complaint, according to the draft report, after an employee alleged her supervisor made inappropriate sexual remarks, solicited sex with her, then turned down job and training opportunities when she refused his advances. But agency records showed no evidence of a misconduct investigation or disciplinary action, according to the project.

The Domestic Violence Report Project found 30 cases in which law enforcement officers who had ‘engaged in domestic violence’ were allowed to keep their agency jobs and continue to carry arms fire. The officers in these cases were not convicted of a crime, but their agencies’ internal investigations proved that they had “engaged in domestic violence”.

A federal law known as the Lautenberg Amendment prohibits domestic abusers from carrying a gun if convicted. The draft report notes that officers convicted of a domestic violence offense should be removed from their positions as they can no longer carry a firearm, a condition of their employment.

In one case described in the project, a Customs and Border Protection officer was arrested and charged with assault after punching his wife in the face, but entered into a plea deal to avoid a criminal conviction that could threaten him. prevent carrying a firearm. The agency initially offered to fire the officer, but instead suspended him for five days and eventually allowed him to keep his gun.

The officer then assaulted another woman less than two years later, according to the draft report. He was suspended for 15 days and then reinstated. He was again allowed to keep his weapon.

“Leaving employees who have engaged in domestic violence in law enforcement positions with the authority to possess firearms perpetuates the risk that the Lautenberg Amendment seeks to address,” the draft report said, adding that “agencies are exposing victims and the public to further violence by keeping weapons in the hands of these individuals.

Mr Cuffari, the inspector general, ordered staff members in an internal memo to remove the findings, writing that the office risked “appearing biased”.

The final version of the domestic violence report, released in November 2020, retroactively narrowed the scope of the investigation and made no reference to cases of officers who were found guilty by their agency of committing domestic violence.

“We have not included findings on disciplinary decisions where such findings might appear to challenge the disciplinary decisions of key officials,” notes the report published in an appendix.

Senior aides in the Inspector General’s office subsequently raised similar objections to the contents of the draft sexual misconduct report. Tom Kait, an assistant inspector general, ordered staff members to remove a section from the draft detailing how agencies in the department often charged employees accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct with generic offenses — “conduct unbecoming,” for example. example – rather than sexual activity offences.

“I think these should come out,” Mr. Kait said in review comments, “because we question the disciplinary outcome in these cases.”

Ellen McSweeney, a senior adviser in the inspector general’s office, also asked staff members to remove references to previous high-profile incidents and reports of sexual misconduct at department agencies. She also called for a section detailing how sexual misconduct can lead to “low morale” and “damage to the reputation” of an agency to be removed.

‘Inflammatory – why do we need this here,’ Ms McSweeney wrote of a section of the draft referring to a case where Customs and Border Protection officers were accused of detaining and assaulting colleagues on a “rape table” at Newark Liberty International Airport.

The Inspector General’s office has opened an investigation into the incidents and three officers have been arrested. One of the officers, Tito Catota, pleaded guilty to “forcibly assaulting, embarrassing, intimidating and interfering with victims” in 2018. The other two officers, Parmenio Perez and Michael Papagni, were acquitted in 2019.


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