|English | Español||May 25, 2018 | Issue #32|
Shooting the Messenger
The US Customs Service Punishes Honesty Among its Own Agents
By Bill Conroy
Redacted letters reporting false drug-bust narratives to Customs
These sources – who include agents, inspectors, intelligence operatives and supervisors – assert that those who challenge the good-ol’-boy system get thrown to the sharks.
However, those who are protected by the good-ol’-boy network – or find themselves aligned with its interests – can seemingly act with impunity; or, as one Customs intelligence officer put it, “If they screw up, they move up.”
One example in which this Custom’s good-ol’-boy network, or inner circle, showed its true colors, according to some agency insiders, involves a case in South Texas that threatened to be quite embarrassing to Customs’ leadership.
At the center of the case is a Laredo-based inspector supervisor who was accused of creating false drug-seizure reports in the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS). The female supervisor, who will be referred to as Ms. A, allegedly generated the phony reports by using the names and social security numbers of real Customs inspectors – making the reports read as though the inspectors had written the narratives themselves.
These false narratives, or offense reports, were purportedly generated following a joint Customs/U.S. Border Patrol operation called Triple Edge that took place in the late 1990s. According to the sources within Customs, Ms. A falsified as many as 16 drug-seizure records to embellish her record. The fabricated Customs seizure reports, the sources claim, were based loosely on actual drug seizures carried out by Border Patrol employees.
A Customs media spokesman in the agency’s Laredo office declined to comment on the allegations, other than to say that “what you’re talking about is very sensitive.”
Julie Marquez, a San Antonio, Texas-based spokeswoman for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Hispanic civil rights group, obtained documentation detailing the allegations concerning Ms. A.
Marquez says the alleged drug-seizure falsifications are of particular concern because they have serious implications for defendants charged with crimes related to the seizures.
“No one should go to prison because of phony seizures,” Marquez adds.
In February 2001, LULAC brought the charges being made against Ms. A, as well as other sensitive information, to the attention of Chief U.S. District Judge George P. Kazen of Laredo. LULAC also asked the federal judge to “appoint a special master or empanel a grand jury to investigate serious acts of misconduct ….”
In a letter accompanying the package sent to Judge Kazen, LULAC states:
“We have enclosed documents that were filed with the (Customs) Office of Internal Affairs, which show that the matter was brought to the attention of the (Customs) Service. ... The U.S. Customs Service is involved in a cover-up of the criminal activity of the filing of false offense reports … ”
“What makes this matter even worse is the fact that individuals have been charged with criminal offenses,” LULAC’s letter continues. “All convictions obtained by the Service or by the Border Patrol in Operation ‘Triple Edge’ are suspect. ... The U.S. Customs Inspectors whose names were used to file the false offense reports, and their careers, also are at risk. For all that is required is that those inspectors be placed under investigation by (Customs) Internal Affairs themselves and then be terminated and ... the high ranking officials will save themselves.”
In response to the package sent to him by LULAC, Kazen wrote, “I have read your letter … and briefly reviewed the various attachments. Considering the nature of the materials, it is my judgment that the appropriate course of action is to forward them to the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, Mervin Mosbacher. I have just spoken with him, and he assures me that he will give the matter his prompt and serious attention. I am sending your material to him in Houston by overnight mail.”
Included in the documentation provided to Kazen by LULAC were several internal letters written by Customs inspectors to their supervisors as well as to Customs Internal Affairs and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
“These complaints of falsified seizures happened during the time period U.S. Customs inspectors at the Port of Laredo and U.S. Border (Patrol) agents worked together at the Border Patrol check points in what was known as operation Triple Edge,” states one letter penned by a Customs inspector and directed to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. “SCI (Supervisory Customs Inspector Ms. A) apparently would periodically take the seizures made by the Border Patrol during this time period that did not relate to U.S. Customs and then would go into TECS (computer system) and generate false seizures.”
“She knowingly and illegally went into TECS and falsified seizures using the names and Social Security numbers of various Customs inspectors and canine enforcement officers,” the letter continues. “She not only used the names and Social Security numbers of the inspectors but she made the narratives read as if these government employees had written the narrative themselves. ... SCI (Ms. A) is still at work with badge and gun performing supervisory inspection duties.”
Another letter contained in the package sent by LULAC to Judge Kazen contains equally shocking claims regarding Customs’ operations in Texas. Because the letter was sent anonymously, references to names have been redacted here.
Charges raised in the anonymous letter include the following:
The letter concludes with, “Will send more later …..... deep esophagus!”
Norma Lacy, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, confirmed in early March 2001 that her office did receive the package sent by LULAC to Judge Kazen.
She said at the time that her office was reviewing the material. “If we determine the matter merits investigation, it will be referred to an investigative agency, such as the FBI or the Office of Inspector General,” Lacy said. However, efforts to determine the status of the case after that point proved fruitless.
Several sources within Customs did say that a U.S. Customs Internal Affairs investigative team visited the Laredo office about a month after the U.S. Attorney’s Office was put on notice about the Ms. A case. As part of that visit, a number of U.S. Customs inspectors were questioned about the alleged drug-seizure record falsifications.
The primary focus of the interrogations carried out by Internal Affairs agents, though, was not to investigate the charges against Ms. A, but rather to determine who gave the information to the media and LULAC, the sources indicate.
“Internal Affairs came down here to see how much we knew and to find out who leaked the information,” says one source.
Another source adds, “Internal Affairs had two missions: damage control and finding someone to make an example out of for leaking out this information.”
The irony of the situation, according to several sources inside Customs, is that the charges against Customs supervisor Ms. A were referred to Internal Affairs initially and they failed to act on them – which is what prompted whistleblowers to talk to the media. A number of the inspectors in Laredo now fear their careers have been ruined because they blew the whistle on alleged corruption.
Through it all, Ms. A retained her position as a Customs inspector supervisor. In fact, as of February 2004, a Customs insider confirms, Ms. A was still working for the border agency.
“The inspectors who came forward did the right thing,” one source says. “This is an abuse of authority, and it’s unjust. It’s scary, because these people have the power to turn things around on you.”
The Laredo case is not the first time in which Customs Internal Affairs has been accused of pursuing the whistleblowers. Insight magazine, which ran a series of articles exposing alleged corruption within U.S. Customs in 1997, reported that a similar shoot-the-messenger strategy was employed after its exposé on Customs appeared in print.
“According to Customs employees, Internal Affairs, or IA, agents have unleashed a witch-hunt aimed at identifying the sources for the border-corruption series,” states a March 24, 1997, article in the Washington, D.C.-based magazine. “Armed with copies of Insight, agents have been questioning suspected Customs employees and taking them line-by-line through articles to see if they will slip up or confess to having revealed the degree of corruption.”
Former Customs inspector John Carman – one of the whistleblowers in the railcar smuggling investigation – claims he had his own run-in with Customs’ good-ol’-boy network after refusing to look the other way when confronted with corruption.
Carman rolls out a laundry list of alleged wrongdoing that he asserts has been perpetrated by Customs employees along the California/Mexican border. Among the charges he makes – as in the Ms. A case – is that records were altered in Customs’ computer system.
Carman raises those claims in a lawsuit he filed in the summer of 2000 in federal court in San Diego. The following is from a 2001 filing in Carman’s litigation:
“... Customs personnel, including high-ranking personnel, have accepted bribes and engaged in other unethical and illegal activities, including falsifying reports, deleting suspect information from the Customs Intelligence Reporting Computer System, aiding and abetting in the facilitating and importing into the United States undocumented persons and contraband – such as narcotics.”
By way of example, Carman, in his lawsuit, charges that “high ranking officials” discouraged Customs line inspectors from searching suspect trucks. He also claims those same Customs officials “provided preferential treatment to companies with ties to drug trafficking” and provided so-called “‘Bingo Cards’ or ‘Get out of Jail Free Cards’ to drug dealers.”
“Said cards, when presented by the holder, entitled the recipient to ‘preferential treatment’ at the United States borders,” the lawsuit asserts.
In the wake of reporting the alleged corruption to his superiors – and ultimately the media – Carman claims he was harassed, retaliated against and finally fired in 1997.
“While he was an employee, (Carman) was refused promotions to which he was entitled, has had his performance evaluations changed, has had test scores reduced … was stripped of his gun and badge ….,” Carman’s lawsuit alleges.
Carman contends the retaliation even continued after he lost his job, due to his ongoing efforts to expose corruption within Customs. In the lawsuit, Carman asserts that defendant Rudy Camacho, director of the Customs Management Center in San Diego, “and others made a concerted and intentional effort to prohibit (Carman) from securing a concealed weapons permit, which was necessary to (Carman in) successfully pursuing his livelihood of becoming a California licensed private investigator.”
“On or about June 16, 1999,” the lawsuit continues, “United States Customs Officers, without basis … retaliated further against (Carman) by ordering and directing state law enforcement officers of the La Mesa Police Department … to stop (Carman’s) vehicle and detain and search him and his vehicle, which they did without probable cause….”
Court records indicate that in the wake of the traffic stop, Carman was prosecuted in state court for illegally carrying a concealed weapon. However, the state court threw out the case after finding that the police lacked reasonable suspicion for stopping Carman’s vehicle.
In his civil litigation, which was filed in federal court in June 2000, Carman alleges that his constitutional rights were violated by a host of defendants, including both U.S. Customs officials as well as local police officers. Carman is seeking monetary damages as well as a court-enforced end to the retaliation and discrimination against him.
The defendants denied Carman’s accusations in an initial answer filed in November 2000. Since that time, the judge has dismissed the U.S. Customs defendants from the lawsuit on technical legal grounds – such as the qualified immunity from prosecution granted to federal law enforcement officers.
However, two of the local police officers involved in the traffic-stop incident described by Carman remained as defendants. Carman’s case was still pending in court as of early 2004.
Regardless of the court rulings in his case, Carman maintains that Customs is the source of his problems. He argues that Customs is incapable of investigating charges of wrongdoing within the agency. He claims further that any whistleblower who attempts to stand up to the agency faces nearly insurmountable odds – given the fact that Customs has the full power and resources of the federal government at its disposal.
“Customs inspectors who have complained about corruption or unlawful practices are harassed, retaliated against, demoted, transferred, discredited and/or dismissed,” Carman asserts in his litigation. “Few inspectors are willing to reveal their names as ‘whistleblowers’ for fear of reprisals against them….”
Carman also alleges in the lawsuit that his complaints “to Internal Affairs fell on deaf ears, and the only significant action taken by the department (is) to conduct ‘damage control’ ... and to cause the termination of employment and (to) discredit employees … who address this corruption.”
Next in Chapter 4:
Racist incidents are exposed at Customs offices around the country. In El Paso, an Anglo Customs agent accuses Hispanic agents of being part of a “Mexican Mafia.” In San Diego, a Customs agent claims he was persecuted after exposing a neo-Nazi ring in the agency. In Washington, D.C., pictures surface showing a Customs executive dressed in a Mexican peon outfit as part of an effort to belittle Hispanics. The executive later becomes the commissioner of Customs.
Read the rest of Bill Conroy’s Borderline Security:
Bill Conroy has worked as a reporter or editor for the past eighteen years at newspapers in Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota and Texas. His investigative reporting over the past five years has focused on corruption and discrimination within federal law enforcement agencies.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism