Maren talks to former Border Patrol officer and current reform advocate Jenn Budd about her own painful experiences working for the agency. DHS Secretary Mayorkas immediately responds to Nick and Adam’s findings, and Congress starts asking questions about Cuffari.
Content Note: This episode includes descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.
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Host Maren Machles: Before we begin, we want you to know the following episode contains descriptions of sexual harassment and references to sexual assault.
Last time, on Bad Watchdog.
Former CBP Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Internal Affairs James Wong: What I found in CBP was that certain elements, particularly the uh, Border Patrol were more militaristic.
Director of The Constitution Project at POGO Sarah Turberville: So now you’ve got these people who were recruited to fight terrorism and interdict drug trafficking dealing with women, family, and children who are seeking asylum. And you know, I think if you asked most Border Patrol agents, they would say, “This isn’t what I signed up for.”
Senior Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Nick Schwellenbach: The situation we saw here was arrests for domestic violence that did not necessarily lead to convictions or, or any of those other outcomes, but where the DHS was able to confirm that the domestic violence did happen.
Former POGO Senior Journalist Adam Zagorin: They suppressed this thing, completely suppressed it.
Nick Schwellenbach: Holy shit, they’ve been sitting on this stuff for months, years, or deleted this stuff. And it’s like this is stuff the public needs to know about. This is stuff the department needs to know about so it can fix these problems.
Maren: Last episode, we learned more about how the Department of Homeland Security was hastily cobbled together in the aftermath of 9/11, giving it sweeping powers and jurisdiction. And we learned that because of all of that power and reach, the watchdog office that oversees the agency is especially crucial when it comes to keeping it in check.
We know that this office investigated how agencies within the department handle domestic violence. But when it came time to publish the report, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari directed the omission of narratives detailing confirmed cases of domestic violence. And the omission that in 30 cases of confirmed domestic violence, the agents involved were allowed to keep their guns.
But what if I told you there was another report? What if I told you the writers of this report had included disturbing findings on a much larger scale? And what if I told you Cuffari and his inner circle have been sitting on it for years?
This is a podcast about finding the truth and holding people accountable, which is essentially — and not coincidentally — the work of an inspector general.
I’m Maren Machles, and from the Project On Government Oversight, this is Bad Watchdog.
Maren: Back in the spring of 2021, POGO investigators Adam and Nick are hustling to break the story on Cuffari gutting the domestic violence report. It’s crunch time, but something is nagging them. Another report was mentioned by some sources as having similar problems, except this time the report hadn’t even been published. So all they had to go on were vague allegations...until...
Nick Schwellenbach: We got a hold of a draft report and when we finally learned about the details. I mean, our minds were blown. We were like, “Holy shit. Like we need to get this out as soon as possible. This is something people need to know about.”
Maren: This draft report that Nick is referring to outlines an investigation which found a widespread culture of sexual harassment and misconduct at law enforcement agencies under the Department of Homeland Security. The watchdog office spent more than four years working on the report, examining misconduct claims, disciplinary files, and surveying personnel.
A big chunk of the report discusses the survey in which the office received nearly 30,000 responses from folks working in TSA, CBP, ICE, and the Secret Service. More than 10,000respondents indicated that they had an experience with sexual misconduct or sexual harassment while working at these agencies. That’s a third of the respondents.
These experiences ranged from inappropriate jokes and remarks to unwanted touching, sexual invitations, and, in some instances, rape.
I just have to say, even though this survey was anonymous, it was still through DHS, DHS’ independent watchdog office, sure, but still connected to their employer. It had to have taken a lot of courage to share these experiences, which makes the decisions of Cuffari and his top aides even more frustrating.
Also, I want to stress that, while Nick and Adam received a draft of the report, it was by no means a rough draft. By the time Cuffari saw it, the draft had been approved by Cuffari’s Office of Counsel, by quality assurance staff, and by three high-level watchdog officials.
Adam Zagorin: So unlike the domestic violence report that we’ve been talking about, where Mr. Cuffari gave a specific signed written instruction to take out part of it, this sexual harassment report, no person in the public has ever—he, he deep-sixed the entire report. Not part of it. All of it.
Nick Schwellenbach: It’s still an ongoing project, so there is no final report that’s been published. According to Inspector General Cuffari, he learned about the draft report in early December 2020.
But it’s been in limbo. And the reasons it’s been in limbo are somewhat murky. We know some of the reasons though, because we’ve seen a draft copy of this report. And some of the people in Cuffari’s inner circle, who we’ve talked about, were objecting to sections in this report.
Why are we quote-unquote “second guessing” disciplinary decisions made by these various DHS components? And in some of these comments, they refer back to the domestic violence directive that Cuffari had made in writing, which we got hold of and published. And they said, “Well, you know, Cuffari a while ago said we shouldn’t be second guessing disciplinary decisions. So why are we doing it here?”
Maren: So Cuffari’s decision to heavily modify the domestic violence report to avoid quote “second guessing” was now being cited as the reason not to release this report on sexual harassment.
Nick Schwellenbach: And so that has led to one major holdup.
Maren: About half of those who indicated experiencing sexual misconduct or harassment were men. Some men commented that they feared ridicule or disbelief if they reported it.
The majority of respondents who experienced misconduct or harassment did not report it through official channels, but 41% of those who actually did report it said it had an adverse impact on their careers.
Adam Zagorin: Part of the house is on fire. And the response to a fire is 9-1-1, let’s bring on the trucks, let’s put the fire out, let’s take action to reassure the workforce and tell people that it’s okay and safe to work at our agency. This response where he says, essentially, “Put the report aside” and did nothing, not for one week or one month, but for years. My response was, “What was he thinking?” This is serious and real, live human beings, flesh and blood, are suffering. It’s a red flag. Pay attention.
Maren: Beyond the survey, the unpublished report Adam and Nick obtained outlines incredible failures of the agencies within Homeland Security to investigate cases. The authors of the report identified cases where a victim came forward about workplace abuse or harassment, and the Department of Homeland Security decided to settle. In nearly 75% of those settled cases, the IG staff found no records showing that DHS investigated or took disciplinary action against the alleged perpetrators. It appears that these agencies never even investigated the allegations; they just settled.
Director of The Constitution Project at POGO Sarah Turberville: I mean, if this is how they’re treating their colleagues and their own family members, how are they treating migrants in the middle of the desert when nobody’s watching?
Maren: Here’s Sarah Turberville again. The director of POGO’s Constitution Project
SarahTurberville: You know, there are some things that Joseph Cuffari can’t change, right? But Cuffari is certainly contributing to the ongoing impunity that these officials enjoy.
Maren: This had to be frustrating for all of the staff that worked on this project as well. I mean, this is why you go to work in a watchdog office. The staff spent years working on something that could have had a massive impact on the culture of an agency. They did their jobs, uncovered serious problems, all to have this report held up by bureaucracy.
Some survey respondents commented on how sexual misconduct and harassment are generally accepted and tolerated as part of the organizational culture. But these findings are nothing new to some folks that have worked in these agencies for years, and even decades. This was the watchdog office’s chance — it was Cuffari’s opportunity — to help those that have felt unsafe and silenced at these agencies finally be heard.
Maren: So let’s start maybe with you kind of introducing who you are.
Former Border Patrol agent, now activist, Jenn Budd: Okay. My name is Jen Budd and I am a former senior patrol agent and intelligence agent with the San Diego Sector Border Patrol. Uh, I was an agent from 1995 until 2001.
Maren (voiceover): Jenn decided to leave the Border Patrol in 2001, in order to advocate for change. She’s shared her experiences with the public as part of that advocacy. So, when I reached out to her to see if she was interested in speaking to us for this podcast, she wrote back within an hour and said, “Count me in.”
Maren: Would you mind describing what even got you interested in joining the Border Patrol?
Jenn Budd: So I just thought it was a federal agency. I had graduated from Auburn University and was intending to go to law school to be a civil rights attorney. And somebody had said the Border Patrol was hiring. I didn’t know anything about the Border Patrol. This is the mid-90s and this is, and I was raised in Alabama. My home life was pretty traumatic and, and rough. My mother is very violent and, uh, has a serious problem with alcohol. And my father was always absent. And after college I realized just how traumatic that was to me when I returned home, deciding where it was I was gonna go after college. And so I joined the Border Patrol just to have an adventure and kind of have a little break from college. They offered me a job in California, as a gay woman I was very excited to go to California in the mid-90s.
Maren: This was a chance for Jenn to get out of an abusive home and see more of the world. But before she could officially join the Border Patrol, she had to get through the academy.
Jenn Budd: The first day they separated the men and the women. And I couldn’t figure out why, but they just said that they had to have a female agent talk to us, which I thought was kind of odd because we hadn’t seen a female agent anywhere there.
They were a rare breed. But suddenly, uh, they had us upstairs. There were six females, I think in my class, pretty sure there were six females out of like 65. And she came in to tell us how to wear our hair and our makeup and not to wear too much jewelry. And she told us we had to wait up there and, um, we couldn’t figure out what was going on. It felt almost like, you know, fifth grade and where they separate you to talk about your periods or something. It’s kind of silly. And I’m like, “What are the guys talking about?” And later on that night, one of the guys, one of my classmates came to speak to me and he told me what, what they were talking about.
And it was that women don’t belong in the Border Patrol.
Maren: And that was your first day?
Jenn Budd: Mhm. Yeah, very first day, yeah.
Maren: Women make up only 5% of U.S. Border Patrol. Jenn said when she was in the Border Patrol there wasn’t much comradery between the women, but she did say when she started the academy, a group of women from a previous class gave her a warning.
Jenn Budd: The women, in the middle of the night in the dark, came to talk to the new women of the 288th.
And they did this for every class and we did it for future classes and it’s our responsibility and our promise to each other that we did this and they tell us the truth of what goes on the academy. If your instructors ask you to go out and they do all the time and you don’t go out with them, they can find reasons to get rid of you. Um, and they call it playing ball. If the women refuse to play ball and that means refuse to date and put out. They told us about rape games that the Border Patrol played. And at first, my classmates and I, uh, were like, “Oh, come on.” You know, it just sounded kind of ridiculous some of the things that they were saying and part of that is that we’re growing up in the same system that these men are growing up in that we don’t talk about sexual assault. And certainly back in the ’90s and the ’80s and ’90s, we’re not talking about it like we do today.
Maren: The sexual misconduct report detailed a survey of DHS employees more than a decade after Jenn left DHS. In the report, an ICE employee details a similar sentiment when explaining why she didn’t report her experience. She said quote, “This is the community I have to work in and grow in the ranks with and it’s better to be one to the guys than ‘that girl’.”
Jenn said she quickly understood that none of this was a joke. She described it in a way that won’t leave my mind, like being put in an uncomfortable or scary position was inevitable. She said, “You either give it up willingly or have it taken from you.”
Jenn Budd: I, I used to think it was a choice, but from going through all this and therapy and stuff, it, I realize it’s not a choice.
Maren: Here’s another passage from the report, and again this is more than a decade after Jenn left.
Quote, “Some respondents reported feeling that coworkers harassed or otherwise engaged in misconduct against them as a way to ‘test’ them to see if they could be trusted. Given demands of law enforcement positions, some noted it is difficult to report a supervisor or coworker who may be needed for support and protection during a difficult or dangerous work situation.”
I mean, can you imagine? Sexual harassment is already isolating enough, feeling like coworkers don’t even see you as a person worth respecting, but to then be worrying about whether the person will retaliate against you by deserting you in a potentially life or death situation.
Maren: You’ve publicly acknowledged that you were assaulted. Um, what did you do with yourself after that happened?
Jenn Budd: I remember looking in the mirror and just being like, I can’t believe this. And, and I mean, I’m on a federal law enforcement academy and you know, and nobody’s gonna believe me. I wanted him to not say anything and I was hoping he wouldn’t say anything.
And I thought, he’s not gonna say anything, cause then it’s gonna bring attention to him. And then for me, personally, as a gay woman who has always known that I was gay, I was very upset because. It’s not a quantitative, qualitative thing between a straight woman being raped and a gay woman being raped or, or anybody, rape is rape. But it just… I felt so small. Like I did when I was a kid and I couldn’t stop, you know, my mom from beating the shit outta me and stuff. And, and I hated that because I had already lost all this weight, I was in the best shape of my life. And I felt very strong and very secure about who I was. And then this happens and you can’t help but feel like, how the hell am I gonna be a Border Patrol agent if I can’t protect myself.
And I just needed to get out to my station and prove that I was a good agent and prove that I could do this work and that I wanted to serve my country. And I was just gonna, I was just gonna move past it and show him how strong I really was.
Unfortunately, he did talk about it. He talked about it a lot.
Maren: Jenn said that even though she wasn’t planning to report the assault, everyone already knew by the next day and instructors were singling her out and ostracizing her.
Jenn Budd: I remember like putting on my uniform. I was starting to get a black eye showing. Um, and I had a busted lip and I had bruised ribs. And we were having defensive tactic classes. My PT instructors, two men, they call out our names and they called out his name and my name. And I was like, “What?” Cause I knew they all knew, you know, I knew by now they all knew. I’m like, but then there’s that part of me. That’s like, you know what, I’m not gonna complain.
I’m gonna do it. And so he’s putting his mouthpiece in and I’m just standing there waiting for him to get done with his high fives, with his bros and stuff. And he leans into me before they blow the whistle and he says, “I’m gonna beat shit out of you, like I did the other night.”
Maren: The way Jenn describes it, the fight was ugly. She said she eventually went to the instructors to ask them not to make her fight him again.
Jenn Budd: And he says, “Why don’t you just file EEO and stop complaining and bitching about all of this?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “Filing false sexual allegations against one of your classmates.” And I said, “I haven’t said anything about what I’m doing here or what’s going on.” So obviously, you know, you know what this is on my eye. You know what this is on my lip. And yet none of you said anything and you’re supposed to be cops?
Well, the next day after that, our supervisor shows up in our classroom and tells all of us that if the women in the group don’t stop complaining about sexual assault and harassment and making these allegations and fi—actually file reports, then they assume it’s fake and it’s a lie and we need to shut the fuck up and get out of his academy, if we can’t hack it. That’s the attitude.
From then on I’m shunned by all the guys.
Maren: Jenn said she faced a lot of retaliation, and the odds were stacked against her.
Jenn Budd: My Spanish instructor comes to me and tells me — one of the good guys — tells me, “I’ve been ordered to fail you on your Spanish exam, but I’m not going to, because I know you’re a good agent. And this happens all the time in the Border Patrol, and you can make changes and I want you to be a Border Patrol agent and bring more women in and make changes, and this isn’t right.” And so, you know, you’re like, okay, yeah, I can do this. Here’s a good guy. And there, and there were other examples of that.
Maren: I want to re-emphasize a statistic here, that I brought up earlier. Forty-one percent of those that did report their experiences said it had a negative impact on their careers. So even though Jenn’s experience was a while ago, this fear and reality of retaliation is still an issue today.
Jenn Budd: And I needed this job. I wasn’t going back home. To me the unknown was less scary than the known of my family. That’s how bad it was.
Maren: Jenn kept her head down and focused on making it out of the academy, in hopes that it would get better once she was at a station. But it didn’t get better.
Jenn Budd: Everyday life as an agent, as an actual agent, once I got past all that, was women’s underwear being thrown into my mailbox drawer, where I kept my time card and stuff and used condoms thrown in there. I’ve had a rattlesnake left in my truck, a live rattlesnake.
Maren: But something else was weighing on Jenn. She said the culture was also prevalent in the way agents were treating the people they would interact with while they were on duty.
Jenn Budd: So in the Border Patrol, they, they have what’s called rape trees. What rape trees are in the Border Patrol is they are trophy trees for male agents who are raping females and female agents, female migrants, and children migrants that they are sexually assaulting.
And no, I am not saying that this is every Border Patrol agent, but there is a rape culture in the Border Patrol. And the men know who’s doing the raping and they have this little clique and community.
Maren: If you think Jenn’s account is outdated or an aberration, in December of 2022, a Border Patrol supervisor was convicted of murdering four sex workers in Texas. In 2021, a recently retired Border Patrol agent in Arizona was arrested for serially raping women between 1999 and 2001. Between 2009 and 2015, more than 20 Border Patrol agents were accused of sex crimes against women and children. And there are far more similar cases.
Maren [interview]: Why did you ultimately end up leaving Border Patrol?
Jenn Budd: I was getting to the point where I couldn’t justify my actions as a Border Patrol agent. I had entered the Border Patrol before the wall. I remember standing in our living room in my uniform. I didn’t even know how to blow the whistle back then, and because they don’t teach you that, you know? And then I just said, “I have to leave, I don’t know where I’m going, I have to leave.” and “I can’t do this anymore.” I said, “I don’t even believe in what we do anymore. The people I arrest are less criminals than the guys I’m sitting next to.”
Every woman in the Border Patrol has had to deal with sexual harassment and a fair amount with unwanted sexual advances and then a fair amount of actual downright rape. And I feel guilty about not coming forward and making a bigger deal out of it and exposing it back in the day. I look at all those women in that green uniform, and they’re swearing their oath.
And I just wonder how many of them are gonna go through this, you know?
Maren: Jenn Budd was working with this agency over 20 years ago. And talking to Jenn and reading this sexual misconduct report, a lot of the experiences she had haven’t gone away. The propositioning of subordinates, the retaliation, the antagonizing, the humiliation, it’s all in this report. And this report is one of the few examples of someone listening and taking these traumatic experiences seriously. But instead of using it to raise alarm bells, Cuffari let it sit in the dark.
Maren: Yeah, I’m just curious as like somebody who is constantly thinking about civil rights, within these agencies, like what your reaction was to Cuffari essentially burying the sexual misconduct report?
Sarah Turberville: It’s a coverup. I mean, Joseph Cuffari is giving cover to abusive agents within the ranks. And I think if, if members of the public sort of really understood the complicity of some of our leaders in giving cover to this kind of abuse and misconduct that they would, they’d be shocked and appalled.
Nick Schwellenbach: I think it’s worth emphasizing, like we put this out nearly a year and a half after Cuffari learned about it. Like, it’s not like, you know, he learned about it a week before and you know, the wheels of bureaucracy just move kind of slowly and we just like beat him by putting this out. It’s like almost a year and a half passed, um. When we learned about it, you know, we worked as hard as we could to get this story out as fast as possible. Obviously we had to check a lot of boxes. It was interwoven with the story of the domestic violence report as well. Um, and we, you know, we strongly felt we needed to make as much public as possible as soon as possible, and, and we did.
After we published our story, the DHS secretary put out a press release and he says, ‘I’m convening a working group to look into how we can strengthen discipline at DHS when this kind of misconduct occurs.”
Maren: DHS Secretary Mayorkas publicly launched a review less than 24 hours after POGO’s investigation was published, leading to the implementation of several agency reforms to discipline for misconduct in June 2022. In October, Customs and Border Protection announced its commitment to a 30% female recruitment class by 2030. In this announcement, the CBP commissioner wrote, “Our pledge [...] is part of a larger framework for our agency to improve the recruitment, retention, representation, and experiences of women officers and agents.”
Nick and Adam’s investigation that shared the findings of this report had a swift impact on reform. Shedding light on these findings with DHS leaders and the public can create change. So, imagine if the report had been published more than a year before, when it came across Cuffari’s desk.
Congress has also been demanding answers about why Cuffari’s office suppressed the sexual harassment report.
In April, a few weeks after POGO’s investigation was published, Senators Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley, the co-chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Cuffari demanding an explanation for the suppression of this report. The next month, Representatives Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney, the chairs of the House homeland and the House oversight committees, sent a letter to Cuffari’s office requesting they turn over documents relevant to the report.
In the days and weeks that followed, the pressure mounted.
Representative Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso, called for Cuffari to resign. A Senior White House official told the social media outlet Latino Rebels that “Cuffari is a hack” and his performance has been brought to the attention of the president.
Cuffari did offer a response to Senators Durbin and Grassley’s letter on May 13th. He wrote that the DHS OIG staff failed to alert him to the significance of the survey findings and that the project was one of many that were ongoing before he became the inspector general. He also said that some staff refused to make changes to the report that lined up with expert recommendations.
Nick Schwellenbach: So he’s throwing his staff under the bus. He’s the boss. That’s definitely the opposite of the “buck stops here” mentality where when you know you’re getting paid the big bucks, you’ve got the big job. Like, you know, wear those big boy pants and take your responsibility. And there’s sort of a pattern here where he just doesn’t wanna take responsibility. It’s not his fault, it’s someone else’s fault.
Maren: Also, even if these people are to blame for holding up this report, the inspector general still has the right to send a letter notifying Congress and the department head about these disturbing findings. But he didn’t.
To this day, congressional leaders remain unsatisfied with his answers.
Maren: At this point, we’ve heard a lot about what Cuffari’s decisions looked like from the outside. But what was going on inside his office? How did his staff feel when he turned down their recommendations to investigate Lafayette Square? Or Del Rio? When he gutted and buried these reports? How did it impact those who are trying to do their jobs, and keep the government accountable, when he threw them under the bus?
Next time on Bad Watchdog we hear from a DHS insider. We hear about Cuffari’s rise to this powerful role and what he has done to stand in the way of his staff and to silence critics within his own office.
Department of Homeland Security insider: I thinks that’s indicative of his leadership style and the way he handles the work here at OIG.
Look what happens when you push back. I’m going to publicly embarrass you.
United States Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS): He wanted to tell his side, that these were just a bunch of employees who were sour grapes, who, uh, were not the best people. I mean I didn’t, I didn’t believe it.
POGO Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Liz Hempowicz: It’s bigger than just Cuffari. It is about kind of the integrity of the entire inspector general system. Um, there need to be consequences when you don’t do your job. He is acting as if he knows that there will be no consequences for his actions.
Adam Zagorin: it was consistent with the sexual harassment survey where all of these people said that when they reported things, it was detrimental to their career.
I mean, this is the story of an agency.
Maren: That’s next time on Bad Watchdog.
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Bad Watchdog is a production of Investigations and Research at the Project On Government Oversight. It’s written, produced, and hosted by me, Maren Machles, and based on investigations by Nick Schwellenbach and Adam Zagorin. Additional research by Julienne McClure. Edited by Julia Delacroix and Brandon Brockmyer. Fact checking by Amaya Phillips and Neil Gordon. This episode was mixed by Natalie Jablonski. Our theme music was written and recorded by Will Wrigley. POGO’s director of Investigations and Research is Brandon Brockmyer. POGO’s editorial director is Julia Delacroix. Find out more about our work to investigate and improve the federal government at www.pogo.org.
Maren Machles - Host
Nick Schwellenbach - Guest
Sarah Turberville - Guest
Adam Zagorin - Guest
Jenn Budd - Guest