CBP IA Operation Hometown reduces violence and corruption: Tomsheck shuts it down -- Pt. 5

One of Johnson’s on-going DHS inefficiencies he seems to have circumvented, for example, is the subject of a recent GAO report highlighting the inability of CBP agents to communicate with each other and with other law enforcement agencies while in the field. Agents have been burdened by this basic communication problem since before the events of 9/11 (Robert Lee Maril, Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas (Texas Tech University Press, 2006). A lack of “radio interoperability” prevails despite contractors paid, according to the GAO Report, hundreds of millions of dollars to fix CBP radios so agents can talk to each other. (Border Security: Additional Efforts Needed to Address Persistent Challenges in Achieving Radio Interoperability, Government Accountability Office, 3/2015).

CBP IA’s Operation Hometown is unfortunately another of Mr. Johnson’s apparent inefficiencies that he fails to acknowledge in his recent interview. Largely unknown outside of DHS, it is a proven program targeting criminal behavior in CBP employees along the Mexican border. Under Tomsheck’s administration at CBP IA, the failure to continue the successful Operation Hometown program has very real implications for all those who seek to reform current immigration policy.

Tomsheck’s Operation Hometown
In July of 2014 James F. Tomsheck, Assistant Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Internal Affairs (CBP IA), turned federal whistleblower seeking protection under the Federal Whistleblowers Act of 1989. Lambasting his CBP superiors, including then CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin and then Acting CBP Chief David Aguilar, Tomsheck alleged that 25 percent of the twenty-eight immigrant deaths in which CBP agents at the Mexican border were involved since 2010 may be legally culpable (Andrew Becker, “Ousted Chief Accuses Border Agency of Shooting Cover-ups, Corruption,” Center for Investigative Reporting, 14 August 2014).

Tomsheck also charged that CBP employees along the Mexican border, both Border Patrol Agents and Customs Officers, were involved in numerous cases still awaiting prosecution involving possible violence, graft, and corruption. He alleged, in addition, that CBP, his own agency, conducted its regular duties and affairs beyond “constitutional constraints.”

Bersin now serves as Assistant Secretary and Chief Diplomatic Officer in the Office of Policy at DHS. Aguilar, who retired from his position as Acting Commissioner of CBP in February of 2013, is now currently a partner at Global Security and Intelligence Strategies.

Based on interviews of employees, internal documents, and federal government reports, it now appears Tomsheck in 2010 initiated a highly successful program at CBP IA named Operation Hometown. The purpose of this program, actually several different programs under one rubric, was to reduce violence, graft, and corruption among Border Patrol Agents and Customs Officers specifically working along the U.S-Mexico border. At the same time, the program also proved cost effective.

Operation Hometown, according to CBP IA documents, was praised both by CBP leadership and CBP IA leadership. In sharp contrast to other alleged actions and CBP IA Programs initiated and supervised directly by Tomsheck, Operation Hometown seemed well situated to address corruption and violence among certain CBP employees.

That is, until Tomsheck completely shut down Operation Hometown after it had been in operation for more than two years.

Alleged actions and questionable programs initiated, operationalized, and supervised by Tomsheck and two of his handpicked administrators in the Integrity Programs Division at CBP IA, Director Janine Corrado and Assistant Director Jeffrey Matta, include the firing in 2013 of Lieutenant Commander J. Gregory Richardson (retired). Richardson, an Afro-American, was an experienced Senior Intelligence Analyst in IPD as well as a career military officer with multiple commendations and awards after almost three decades of service to his country. During his fourth deployment abroad in the Navy Reserve, Richardson sustained a serious injury that was subsequently diagnosed by the US Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans as an 80 percent medical disability. (Robert Lee Maril, “Vet alleges supervisors at CBP IA ignored his disability: He just needed an ounce of compassion, pt. 1, HSNW, , 28 October 2014).

But Tomsheck, Corrado, and Matta refused repeatedly to provide any of the required accommodations for Richardson’s documented medical disability and, instead, successfully facilitated his firing in March, 2014. According to Richardson, who says he is currently involved in several lawsuits, he has still not received the benefits to which he is entitled. Richardson also says he also has filed a complaint with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act which, after two full years, still has not been resolved.

The “July Amnesty” initiative appears to be another example of what DHS Jey Johnson recently admitted are inefficiencies present within DHS. In July 2011, Tomsheck, Corrado, and Matta told all intelligence analysts the Integrity Program Division (IPD) to clear more than 700 backlogged cases filed in a case management system. These cases contained various criminal allegations against CBP employees including homicides and felonies. Intelligence analysts in IDP, who number about twenty, normally analyzed and filed reports on fifteen to twenty cases per month. Suddenly their supervisors, Janine Corrado and Jeffrey Matta, ordered them to clear more than 700 backlogged cases of which they were not aware.

According to IDP minutes, “Director Corrado has declared July amnesty month. All of these open cases need to be resolved in the next 31 days.” “We need to clean these cases up” (CBP IA IPD Meeting Notes, 3/30/11, p.3)

To clear more than 700 cases in one month required a rushed, unprofessional assessment of all these backlogged cases including the mysterious disappearance of some cases as well as the possible backdating of other cases. It still remains unclear if any of these 713 cases were ever professionally analyzed or ever correctly processed as required by CBP IA policy and procedures. Victims of these allegations of criminal misconduct by CBP employees still may not know how their cases were, if at all, resolved (Robert Lee Maril, “Tomsheck’s “July Amnesty”: CBP IA loses hundreds of cases alleging criminal activity by CBP Employees, pt. 3, HSNW, 12 January 2015).

Equally troubling as the July Amnesty was Tomsheck’s SAREX Program, a CBP IA unauthorized search of CBP employees’ bank records and other Personal Identifiable Information protected by the Federal Privacy Act of 1974 (Robert Lee Maril, “CBP IA’s SAREX: Tomsheck’s program goes rogue, pt. 4,” HSNW, 18 February 2015). In this specific “inefficiency,” operationalized by IPD Director Corrado and Assistant Director Matta, the list of suspect CBP employees eventually exceeded 3,000 names.

Since 2006 CBP violence and corruption rapidly increases
It’s not easy being a Border Patrol Agent or Customs Officer. For Border Patrol Agents, for instance, there is the very nature of the work itself. During their eight to ten hour shifts, Agents must endure the heat of the desert in all border states, while extreme physical challenges because of altitude and terrain also prevail in parts of Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Boredom and distraction occurring with necessary surveillance along the Mexican border frequently combine with countless spent along back roads and trails in the middle of nowhere.

Then add the routine risks facing Border Patrol Agents on a regular basis, risks grounded in the hard realities of distinguishing between an undocumented worker seeking better opportunities on the north side of the border wall and smugglers with criminal histories who may be heavily armed. With backup in many places along the border as much as an hour or more distant, a quick decision by an Agent at 3:31 a.m. can be life threatening both for an Agent and those he or she confronts.

Sprinkle into this recipe numerous policies and procedures handed down from inside the confines of the beltway that, from the perspective of those designated to patrol the border, may seem at best designed to complicate an already difficult and dangerous job. Among many residents in many border communities there is also frequent disdain for the Border Patrol. Border residents may show little sympathy for Agents who, after 10 hours spent chasing undocumented workers, may have nothing to show for their efforts but chronic knee and back problems along with their routine cuts and bruises.

CBP Agents and Customs Officers also sometimes create their own intra-agency problems. Chief among these is that female agents and officers at some border stations and ports of entry, at only 5 percent of the total labor force, face gender discrimination from their own male supervisors or male peers. The tip of this largely ignored iceberg recently emerged yet again at the Chula Vista Border Patrol station in California. (Meridith Hoffman, “Creepy Border Patrol Agent Spies on Female Employees Undressing in Bathroom,” VICE, 27 March 2015).

As if this is not enough to make the jobs of Agents exceptionally challenging, there remains a very crucial factor lost in the ramp up more than 24,000 Agents by 2015. Say, for example, an agent was raised in Brownsville, Eagle Pass, El Paso, Columbus, Douglas, Nogales, Yuma, Calexico, San Diego, or any of the border towns along the 2,000 line lazily snaking its way from Texas to California. Just graduated from the Border Patrol Academy Artesia, New Mexico, newly minted Agents, both Hispanic and Anglo, are presently, it appears, assigned to stations in or near border communities in which they were born and raised.

Chances are that if you are originally from Brownsville, San Diego, or points in between, you are likely to choose your hometown as a first choice for posting. Why? Because it is where your family is located and where many of your friends still reside; it may be where you might want to spend the rest of your life. For Border Patrol agents who already were deployed far from home while in the military, returning to their border hometowns can be very appealing.

Where things go wrong, however, is that just as new CBP agents and officers are starting to feel at home after moving back to Calexico, Nogales, or Presidio, they inevitably run into an old friend from high school or the old neighborhood. Or agents bump into former acquaintances at the local convenience store when gassing up the family car, or maybe on the softball field or in church. But wherever the situation, Agents and Officers usually realize these meetings are not always by chance. From their academy training they know that these old friends may want something from them. Just one small favor. Really. No big deal.

Worse still, these same former acquaintances may ask about their families. How many children do they have now? Does their mother still live in their old barrio. Whatever happened to their sister? This may be an innocent politeness or an implied threat to the welfare of the agent’s family. Then they ask for a small favor.

What these old buddies want is for the agent on a specific date to look the other way at a certain time when the agent is on his or her shift, or transport a package from point A to point B. In return, there could be a lot of money coming their way. Untraceable cash that makes their annual salary inconsequential, big money they could never earn in ten years of dangerous and boring shift work along the borderline.

If Agents and Officers take this money just once, regardless of the amount, they are bought and owned forever. Because of the possibility of blackmail and threats to family members, these Agents and Officers now must work for drug and human traffickers.

Because of these real geographic contingencies, for many years CBP managers knew that posting agents back to their own hometowns was the wrong thing to do. So they did not do it.

If an agent was born and raised in Brownsville, he was posted to EL Paso. Far enough away that it was difficult for him or her to get home on the weekends. Far enough away that the agent was forced to rent or buy a house or apartment, to make his home in an unknown community in which he worked and in which pressure based upon greed and/or on the Agent’s family, extended family, or friends was highly unlikely.

But this and other institutional wisdom and policies were thrown out like the trash after the US Congress mandated a rapid build-up in CBP forces. Agents who as a part of their professional training at the Academy were forced to complete six months of rigid and challenging instruction in weapons, immigration law, and Spanish prior to 2006, began running in to newly minted agents who graduated after less than fifty-five days. These new agents and officers since 2006 came not only from the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but just as likely from behind the counters at McDonalds and Burger King as well as the aisles of Walmart and Lowes. Many of these same Agents and Officers, it now appears, were returned by the CBP to their original border hometowns.

After two decades at the Secret Service, James Tomsheck was hired in 2006 as the Assistant Commissioner of Internal Affairs at CBP. (Office of Internal Affairs Organizational Information, Assistant Commissioner’s Biography and About the Office of Internal Affairs, James F. Tomsheck Assistant Commissioner, 31 March 2014).

From the beginning, one of Tomsheck’s first concerns in his new position at CBP IA was a fear of rising acts of violence, crime, and corruption by employees. In 2010, four years after he took over CBP IA, Tomsheck wisely signed off on Operation Hometown, a pilot project created by his Intelligence Analysts in his newly developed Integrity Program Division.

Unlike Tomsheck’s July Amnesty, SAREX Program, and several other CBP IA failed programs, Tomsheck’s Operation Hometown was a well-researched and planned IPD effort to target certain Agents and Officers for investigation who had been allowed to return to their home- towns after graduation from the Academy. Tomsheck was 100 percent in the right not to trust some CBP federal Agents and Officers who had been assigned to their former border communities.

Tomsheck’s Operation Hometown methodologically sound, quickly operationalized, and highly successful
During the first years of CBP’s campaign to rapidly increase the number of Border Agents and Customs Officers, there were a variety of other policies taken out to the garbage regardless of demonstrated merit. Recruiting standards including background investigations and certain kinds of admission tests were also lowered or thrown out. Standards expected at the Academy were universally dumbed down to assure a greater percentage of candidates graduate. These Academy graduates, many of whom were still capable and honest even if poorly trained, were then sent back to their border communities.

Intelligence Analysts who suggest during this time period that spot background checks of certain recruits precluded their entrance to the training academies in New Mexico and Georgia are told repeatedly by their superiors at CBP IA, “…your job is to help us make the numbers. We hire them, let someone else fire them.”

As early as 2007, Intelligence Analysts of a covert testing team in IPD spot checking the backgrounds of new CBP applicants discovered that 5 candidates cleared to attend the Academy possessed strikingly similar characteristics which warranting further investigation. First, all of these recruits lived in the San Diego area. Second, none of them had any credit histories. Third, they all had known each other in the military. All lived in very expensive homes far beyond the reach of their previous military incomes. And finally, all five candidates applied to become CBP agents at exactly the same time.

In spite of these remarkable co-incidences, no further investigations are conducted because the Intelligence Analysts at IDP are told to, “…pass them through.”

In fact, in another case several new Border Patrol recruits who were already two months into their training at the Glynco, Georgia, federal training facility had to be “pulled” because Intelligence Analysts uncovered egregious facts about them. If these two recruits had graduated, they would have become federal law enforcement agents permitted to conduct investigations, carry automatic weapons, and be privy to logistical information in high demand by drug and human traffickers.

By 2010, Tomsheck became convinced that not only was the CBP riddled with dishonest, corrupt, and violent employees, but that a number of these agents and officers had been allowed to return to their border hometowns where they were at high risk of being approached by intermediaries of criminal organizations. Many of Tomsheck’s IPD Intelligence Analysts had long disagreed that CBP employees should be assigned to their border hometowns, that it was a counterproductive policy. Tomsheck acquiesced to a new pilot research project designed to research and discover the facts about agents and officers who returned to their border hometowns.

The pilot research project was conducted in Eagle Pass, Texas. The methodology was simple: using only two variables, place of birth (Eagle Pass) and area of assignment (Eagle Pass and other smaller communities within driving distance of Eagle Pass), the analysts proposed to investigate twenty-five agents recently graduated from the Academy who had been born and raised in Eagle Pass.

The results of the pilot project conclude that five out of twenty-five agents investigated warranted immediate further investigation because of highly suspicious factors or behaviors revealed.

The Eagle Pass pilot study was then expanded to the nearby south Texas border counties of Starr, Cameron, Webb, and Maverick. This time the sample size was enlarged to include 255 Agents and Officers. This project, intended also to be short term, was named the South Texas Campaign Criminal Associates and Hometown Duty Assignment Pilot Study (Short Term Study). It was called, for short, Operation Hometown by Intelligence Agents.

These CBP Agents and Officers, all of whom were born and raised in one of these four counties, then reassigned to their hometowns or nearby communities after graduation from the Academy, were carefully examined. As in Eagle Pass, a disproportionate number of the Agents and Officers required further immediate investigation because of problematic factors uncovered within the parameters of the study.

IPD Intelligence Analysts then submitted a structured and formal proposal for feedback and approval from supervisors. This project was named South Texas Criminal Associates and Hometown Duty Assignment Study (Long Term Study), or for short again, Operation Hometown. All of the counties in South Texas were included in this study that contained a sample size of 354 Agents and Officers.

Like the two previous studies, this study was initiated, “…to determine the prevalence of reported criminal associates and hometown duty assignments and the relationship of both to allegations/investigations of reportable misconduct” (CBP-IA Five Year Report 2012, James F. Tomsheck Assistant Commissioner Office of Internal Affairs, Integrity Programs Division, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Washington, D.C., 31 December 2012, p. 17.)

This version of Operation Hometown came with an open-ended time frame and a precise and strict methodology for research based upon the two other studies. Analysts were told which data bases could be researched in their formal investigations and which, in contrast to the SAREX Program, were out-of-bounds. Policies and procedures were detailed and agreed upon by Director Corrado and Assistant Director Matta. Operation Hometown was to be evaluated, unlike the SAREX Program, on a regular basis and tweaked as necessary.

From the original planning stages involving pilot studies, Operation Hometown was a well-researched, designed, legal, and measured investigation of CBP Agents and Officers who, under a new CBP policy in 2006, were reassigned to their border hometowns.

The data in general suggested that the majority of new CBP graduates reassigned to their hometowns were not guilty of any criminal, policy, or procedural offenses. But the data clearly demonstrated that a significant minority were more likely than other Agents and Officers to warrant further investigation. And among these Agents and Officers there were some who did not mind doing a favor for an old friend.

Operation Hometown praised by CBP leadership
At a regular IPD meeting in late March, 2012, more than two years after it was initiated, Operation Hometown was singled out by the IPD Director, Janine Corrado, as a CBP IA program which was not only note worthy compared to other programs, but readily praised for its results. As recorded in the minutes of that meeting, “Operation Hometown continues to be popular at HQ” according to Corrado (IPD Minutes, 2012 Divisional Meeting, 27 February 2012, p. 1). “HQ” stands for CBP Headquarters located in Washington, D.C.

By 29 March 2012, Operation Hometown was the obvious pride of Tomsheck’s IDP. Listed first among five other programs in the IDP regular Minutes, it was scheduled like other IDP programs for a new “Team Lead” named to replace the outgoing intelligence analyst serving as current leader.

It appears that Operation Hometown was continued under Tomsheck’s IDP because, when evaluated on a regular basis, it met or exceeded the criteria set forth in the proposal’s original objectives, methodology, and other professional standards. The metrics of Operation Hometown apparently compared very favorably to other IDP programs in IDP Minutes with regard to the summaries of each team’s “accomplishments and efforts”, “number of reports generated”, and “successful practices and problems encountered.” This later category includes, “…amount of leads/information, timeliness of Background Investigation Files receipt and loss/replacement of personnel” (IPD Minutes, 2012 Divisional Meeting, Verbatim, March 29, 2012).

As late as 31 December 2012, Operation Hometown, both the short-term and the long-term versions, were touted as the most significant accomplishments of IPD from 2008 to 2012. Specifically this was because both the short and long-term versions of Operation Hometown successfully employed methods, “…to preempt and disrupt the efforts of transnational criminal organizations to infiltrate or compromise the CBP workforce.” (CBP-IA Five Year Report 2012, James F. Tomsheck Assistant Commissioner Office of Internal Affairs, Integrity Programs Division, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Washington, D.C., 31 December 2012, p. 17).

Tomsheck notes at this same time that CBP IA had, “… increased its presence in the investigation of employee corruption and misconduct.” This presumably includes the success of Operation Hometown. Further Tomsheck states that he is very proud of, “…every IA employee who performs his or her duties in an exemplary manner in support of CBP’s mission to secure our nation’s border while fostering legitimate travel and trade (CBP-IA Five Year Report 2012, p. 2).

Tomsheck shuts down Operation Hometown
Soon after showering accolades on Operation Hometown, a program that was both praised by CBP leadership and also appears to have been a successful and productive program held in high regard by CBP IA leadership, Tomsheck shut it down.

It is unclear why Tomsheck shut down a CBP IA program that was so vitally needed because of the problems caused by CBP policy changes in 2006 after the relocation of some Agents and Officers to their border hometowns. It is also unclear why, since Operation Hometown was praised by CBP leadership and Tomsheck himself after more than two years of operation, Tomsheck closed down his own successful program.

The Public Information Office in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas was contacted with questions about Operation Hometown and CBP policy, but did not respond to an emailed request for information.

Poorly trained CBP academy graduates continue to return to their border hometowns to work as Border Patrol Agents and Customs Officers. As such, a disproportionate number undoubtedly have been and are asked by family, extended family, former friends, and acquaintances for just one small favor. Really. no big deal.

How these CBP border employees react to these kinds of requests appears to fall into the category of Secretary Johnson’s labels DHS “inefficiencies,” — “inefficiencies” in this case apparently no longer monitored or investigated by CBP or Tomsheck’s CBP IA. Nevertheless, it would appear that these same inefficiencies do indeed have profound implications on all DHS agencies tasked with operationalizing and enforcing our current immigration laws. Therefore, it seems more than reasonable for our politicians, regardless of party, to discuss with voters DHS inefficiencies that may directly impact the success of any or all new immigration reforms.

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of Sociology at East Carolina University, is the author of The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.-Mexico Border. He blogs at leemaril.com.