(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph L. Swafford Jr./Released; Illustration by POGO)
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a longstanding corruption problem, and the Trump Administration hasn’t been immune. At least 13 employees have been arrested on corruption-related charges since the start of the Trump Administration, according to records obtained by the Project On Government Oversight through the Freedom of Information Act.
The charges, which range from drug smuggling to bribery to theft to sharing top-secret government data, are only the latest in a longer list of corruption charges against more than 200 CBP employees who have been arrested from October 2004 through mid-March 2018, according to the records. POGO obtained the first new release of these records since they were last provided to the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2015. The new release contains roughly 40 more cases.
The records show that 80 Border Patrol agents and 127 CBP Officers have been arrested since 2004. Border Patrol agents police thousands of miles of U.S. borders with the overwhelming focus on the boundary with Mexico, while CBP officers work in ports of entry, including international airports. CBP removed or terminated 52 of the arrested employees, though it reinstated 2 of them in different positions. 124 employees resigned. In some more recent cases, typically where the employee still has not yet faced trial, the agency has put the employee on indefinite suspension as a temporary measure.
As the Department of Homeland Security’s largest law enforcement agency, CBP has grappled with corruption in its ranks practically since its inception in 2003, when the agency was created out of a combination of former agencies. A massive hiring initiative that began during the George W. Bush Administration doubled the agency’s size in a matter of years, and numerous stories—not only of corruption, but also of violence and abuse—have come out of the agency since then, spanning presidential administrations.
Experts say the agency’s problems will only intensify if President Trump's plan to rapidly hire thousands more CBP employees moves forward.
John Roth, the then-Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security, stated in Congressional testimony last fall, "Historically, DHS OIG has seen large increases in the number of allegations of misconduct against DHS personnel after rapid hiring surges."
And those are just the allegations that are reported. James F. Tomsheck, the former head of Internal Affairs at CBP, told POGO that “the scope of corruption at CBP remains unknown,” because the agency’s law enforcement officers are likely hesitant to report wrongdoing by one of their own.
The lack of accountability at CBP has been documented for years. In May 2015, the Homeland Security Advisory Council wrote, “There is no one who the Secretary of Homeland Security can clearly hold accountable for seeing to it that corruption does not take root within CBP.”
A CBP spokesperson told POGO that the agency “has taken many steps to increase accountability and transparency.”
“The background checks [of potential hires] are much more robust” than they were a decade ago, according to the CBP spokesperson.
Tomsheck disagrees. “What CBP has done is cast aside the standard screening techniques used to hire federal law enforcement officers,” he said. The agency’s current screening techniques don’t sufficiently identify when potential employees have been involved in—or could become involved in—drug use or drug smuggling, according to Tomsheck.
As the records POGO obtained show, drug-related charges are some of the most common reasons CBP employees are arrested. That’s the case for 4 of the 13 CBP employees who have been arrested during the Trump Administration. One CBP officer, whose name was redacted from the documents obtained by POGO, is awaiting a trial next month for charges of “conspiracy to distribute controlled substances” and money laundering. Another officer was arrested for importing cocaine.
According to Tomsheck, the agency’s reliance on outsourcing to private companies to perform background checks is unusual within the world of law enforcement and is an “unacceptable shortcut” designed to hire more employees faster, regardless of quality.
This is worrisome because “[CBP employees] have this extraordinary power, and they have a de facto immunity because they have no meaningful oversight and accountability,” Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, told POGO.
Guerrero is also the co-chair of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which has been keeping track of deaths and injuries caused by CBP employees. Unlike the corruption records that POGO was able to obtain, Guerrero said that information about deaths and injuries is more difficult to obtain because these cases are rarely prosecuted and the federal government doesn't want to acknowledge them.
By contrast, Guerrero said the agency simply views corruption as a “collateral consequence of the work that they do.”