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Smuggling, theft, bribery at agency

Homeland Security staff misconduct is outlined in a report, along with fraud by the public.

December 05, 2006|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Aside from patrolling the nation's borders and guarding against terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security also is battling fraud, theft, bribery, smuggling and other crimes by American citizens -- with some of the most disturbing examples coming from the sprawling agency's own employees.

A semiannual report filed to Congress by the department's inspector general showed a sharp jump in arrests in the six months ended Sept. 30, with many stemming from schemes by members of the public to bilk the agency of emergency relief funds in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But the report, released this week, also highlights a litany of staff misconduct: immigration officials demanding sex in exchange for visas, airport screeners stealing money from tourists' luggage, federal air marshals smuggling drugs, and employees from various DHS agencies committing sex crimes -- including indecent exposure and distributing child pornography.

The array of staff transgressions tucked into the report reflects the continued growing pains of an agency that was formed only three years ago, and the pressures created as parts of the department have rapidly expanded, critics say.

Clark Kent Ervin, a former DHS inspector general, said the Transportation Security Administration rushed to hire screeners and air marshals in 2003 without running background checks on the applicants.

"Knowing DHS dysfunction and disingenuousness, it wouldn't surprise me if DHS doesn't fully vet employees for criminal backgrounds before hiring them or periodically recheck them," Ervin said.

Russ Knocke, press secretary for DHS, would not comment on the agency's policy on background checks but dismissed Ervin's criticism as "pure speculation" and "without merit."

Knocke said the problems were due mainly to a few individuals.

"No law enforcement agency of any government in the world is going to be immune to inappropriate behavior on the part of its employees, particularly one that is as large as we are," Knocke said. "... There's no tolerance for unethical behavior at this department and we use every authority to confront it."

Investigations by the inspector general's office triggered 321 arrests and 243 convictions in the six-month period. The report filed for the previous six months documented 200 arrests; six months earlier, there were 54.

The report did not provide a breakdown of how many cases involved DHS staff, but they came from all parts of the department.

Two TSA screeners were caught pilfering jewelry from luggage, while another was found smuggling more than $80,000 in an attempt to avoid reporting income brought into the country. Another team of four screeners targeted Japanese tourists until one was caught stealing up to $1,800 from checked luggage.

Many of the offenses involved getting contraband past barriers. Two federal air marshals were snared by a DHS and FBI investigation that found the marshals had sought and accepted a bribe to shepherd 15 kilograms of cocaine through airports. Two guards at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement prison sold alcohol and cigarettes to the illegal immigrants in their custody.

The agency's defenders said that in a department of more than 180,000 people, the number getting into trouble is relatively insignificant and that the arrests show the department's oversight is improving.

The inspector general's reports can be found online at www.dhs.gov/xoig/rpts/semiannl/editorial_0330.shtm.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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