|English | Español||May 20, 2018 | Issue #33|
From the DEA to "Homeland Security"
Asa Hutchinson's "Retaliation Against Minority Employees"
By Bill Conroy
Redacted affidavit from an employee of Customs Tactical Intelligence Center (91 kb PDF)
HAPCOA resolution relating to the Customs class-action discrimination lawsuit (121 kb PDF)
Note: Acrobat Reader needed to view PDF documents
The formation of the Department of Homeland Security represents the largest restructuring of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. Seventy-two years earlier, in 1875, the U.S. Customs Service officially became part the U.S. Treasury Department. And now, as part of the effort to enhance home-front security in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Customs is being rebranded as part of the fledgling Department of Homeland Security.
But the culture of the Customs Service, which was established in 1789 as one of the nation’s first federal agencies, is not likely to be easily transformed by simply shuffling the agency into some new juggernaut bureaucracy—any more than putting a baseball team in a new division would alter the underlying chemistry of that team.
That supposition has huge implications for national security.
For example, the nation’s intelligence agencies were criticized heavily for failing to piece together a series of clues that, in hindsight, appear to have been threads in the tapestry of planning for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
To prevent such communication and analysis lapses in the future, the intelligence community has assured members of Congress that new information-sharing and warning systems have been put in place.
But what if the intelligence shortcomings have deeper roots than poor coordination and bureaucratic bumbling? What if those roots spring forth from the very culture of the government agencies involved in gathering, analyzing and disseminating critical information?
That concern appears to be given some weight by whistleblowers in at least one sector of the nation’s intelligence community: the Tactical Intelligence Center, or TIC, located at Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
TIC is part of U.S. Customs’ intelligence operations and is charged with conducting counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism missions.
The curtain is drawn back on the inner workings of the clandestine intelligence unit in a series of legal filings and internal letters that have surfaced involving TIC personnel. The documents, as well as sources within Customs, depict a scene of bitter office politics at TIC that have bred charges of discrimination, falsification of documents, budget manipulation, cronyism and abuse of power. These alleged activities have been so disruptive, and created such a hostile workplace, that they threaten to compromise TIC’s overall effectiveness as an intelligence unit, according to observers familiar with TIC.
“From the outside, I look at all the crap going on in this place (TIC), well, I thought federal employees were supposed to protect us,” says Miguel Elias, a New Orleans-based attorney who agreed to take on the discrimination claims of five TIC employees. “The higher-ups are simply writing their own ticket, and covering each others’ backs. And you’re either part of that clique, or you’re out.”
In that type of atmosphere, workplace morale becomes abysmal. As one former Customs agent points out, “Do you think you’re safe if morale (in law enforcement) is down? Do you think anyone wants to work under those conditions?”
The TIC employees represented by Elias filed discrimination complaints charging Customs with engaging in age, gender and ethnic discrimination. Elias says all of the cases had wound their way through the administrative process of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by 2002, with each of the five employees involved being granted the right to file a lawsuit in federal court.
One of those cases made its way into U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana that same year. The case involves a high-ranking intelligence officer who alleges that the director of TIC systematically discriminated against Hispanic employees—resulting in less-qualified individuals being promoted to supervisory positions.
Carmen M. Leon served as a supervisory intelligence operations specialist-chief of analysis for eight years before being demoted in June 1999 to program manager.
“Leon’s position … was taken away from her, without cause, and given to Pete Hallock, an untrained Caucasian male with less experience and seniority than Leon,” her lawsuit alleges. “And to add insult to injury, Tim Burke (the TIC director at the time) assigned Leon to work for Pete Hallock.”
Leon applied for a higher-level supervisory position in November 2000, but failed to get the promotion, even though, according to her complaint, she was “the most qualified candidate and ‘next in line’ for the promotion.”
“(Leon) alleges that the true reason she was not promoted is on account of her sex and national origin: Hispanic female,” Leon’s lawsuit asserts.
Leon goes on to claim that TIC Director Burke engaged in a “pattern and practice of harassing and applying unequal treatment toward Leon” and other Hispanic employees. She contends further, that since at least 1997, “Customs has engaged in unlawful employment practices at their facilities,” including creating a hostile work environment for Hispanic employees “by harassment and retaliatory tactics.”
Those tactics, Leon alleges in her lawsuit, included “taking away necessary items, i.e., laptop computers and digital pagers; having to submit paperwork several times because original paperwork conveniently gets lost; having to submit reasons for use of a cellular telephone; and not giving earned awards.”
Leon claims in the litigation that the emotional distress inflicted on her as a result of the hostile work environment at TIC “caused (her) to prematurely deliver a baby in July 2001, resulting in a miscarriage.”
Customs denied Leon’s charges in its response to her complaint and asked the judge to grant judgment in the agency’s favor, “dismissing (Leon’s) complaint with prejudice, with (Leon) to bear the costs of this litigation.”
Leon’s case never made it before a jury. The federal judge hearing her case in New Orleans granted Customs’ request, and dismissed the litigation on summary judgment in September 2003.
Leon may have lost her battle in court, but she is not alone in speaking out about the problems at TIC. In yet another round of allegations, an administrative grievance filed by a former TIC supervisor in January 2002 claims the unit’s parent agency, the Office of Intelligence, tried to “disrupt management at TIC, with the use of threats and abuse of powers….”
By way of example, the former supervisor—who filed the grievance after being demoted—claims that TIC’s budget was slashed to the point where it was having difficulty paying rent to its landlord. TIC was leasing building space at Stennis from NASA.
“Our administrative staff is often instructed by HQ to move existing money around between various accounts in order to pay different bills with the same money…” states the grievance, which is directed to the U.S. Customs Office of Investigations. “It can’t be done; it is ludicrous. This is the extent of the incompetence … and NASA is going to be furious when they learn we can’t pay the rent.”
The rent was, in fact, eventually paid, according to a source familiar with TIC’s operations, who adds, “There is a lot of fraud, waste and abuse going on at TIC.”
A draft of an undated letter prepared by the same former supervisor sometime after December 18, 2001, and addressed to a U.S. congressman, adds credence to the source’s assertion. The letter charges that a TIC employee was sent to Kosovo as a U.S. Customs representative “and then had his payroll records falsified … in order to avoid the congressionally mandated GS-15 pay cap.”
“The unit file on this situation is three to four inches thick,” the letter continues. “It is filled with numerous memos and e-mails demonstrating our repeated objections and refusal to take these actions that were categorized as ‘against the law’ by the senior Customs finance specialist in Indianapolis.”
The former supervisor, who was still with TIC as 2003 drew to a close, declined comment.
A series of affidavits also were obtained that are related to another discrimination action against TIC management. In one of those affidavits, a high-level director in Customs intelligence operations stresses that age, race, and national origin are not factors in determining promotions or treatment of employees.
However, a half dozen TIC employees claim in their affidavits that they have been subjected to some form of unfair treatment by the unit’s management.
In one of those affidavits, a Hispanic TIC intelligence analyst echoes the comments made by attorney Elias concerning the cliquish atmosphere within TIC:
“It is common knowledge that management … have in the past and are presently discriminating against individuals in Bay St. Louis, Miss. The main issues are traversed around the good-ol’-boy network. If you are not a member of the elite group, you will not get the equal opportunity to participate in areas such as cash awards, travel to special locations, overtime, promotions and training. The majority of discrimination has been directed toward older, Hispanic employees.”
The analyst goes on to claim that individuals involved in the EEOC process have been retaliated against.
“One of the most common practices is requesting an Internal Affairs investigation on petty subjects that may have happened 1 to 3 years ago,” the analyst claims in the affidavit.
The issues being raised by Hispanic employees at TIC mirror discrimination complaints raised in the federal class-action lawsuit filed in May 2002 by Hispanic Customs agents.
In fact, the seemingly pervasive pattern of racial bias has started to command the attention of the Hispanic law enforcement community nationwide. The mounting tension was focused in late 2002 on a nominee for a high-level post at the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That nominee was Asa Hutchinson, who at the time was the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—which is part of the Department of Justice.
Hutchinson is a former Republican congressman from Arkansas and a graduate of Bob Jones University in South Carolina—which, until 2000, maintained an open policy of prohibiting inter-racial dating among students. Hutchinson was tapped in late November 2002 by President George W. Bush to serve as Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security within DHS. The undersecretary post is charged with overseeing U.S. Customs, the Transportation Security Administration, Border Patrol and a number of other federal agencies that are being reshuffled and/or reorganized as part of the creation of the new bureaucracy.
The Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA) has raised some serious concerns about Hutchinson’s track record at DEA, particularly as it relates to minorities. HAPCOA, which has about 1,100 members in the United States and Puerto Rico, represents command-level Hispanic law enforcement officers working on the local, state and federal level. One of the charges made in a 2002 resolution adopted by HAPCOA is that Hutchinson, as DEA administrator, was “party to continuing an insidious ‘good-old-boy’ network (in DEA) thus perpetuating an atmosphere of distrust, reprisal and retaliation against minority employees….”
When interviewed in December 2002, Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge—who at the time had only been recently nominated by Bush to serve as secretary of DHS —said he was not aware of HAPCOA’s charges against Hutchinson.
However, Johndroe stressed that “Mr. Hutchinson is a man of integrity and has done an excellent job at DEA.”
Regardless, several federal law enforcement sources say failure to address racial tensions in the workplace inevitably hurts morale, which, particularly in the case of the new DHS, could pose a risk to national security.
“Morale goes down if people feel they’re being treated like garbage,” stresses one federal agent—who asked not to be named because he feared he would be retaliated against for talking to the media. “Does that (poor morale) jeopardize the safety of the country? Yes.
“No one would blow a case, such as a terrorist investigation, on purpose, but you can be so demoralized that you’re not working at 100 percent.”
In late August 2002, HAPCOA adopted a resolution in support of the Hispanic agents who are pursuing a class-action discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Customs. The federal lawsuit, filed originally against the Secretary of Treasury, has since been redrafted to name the Secretary of DHS to reflect Customs merger into the new department.
Customs is fighting the litigation, claiming the allegations are without merit and not supported by the statistical evidence. The case was still pending in federal court in Washington, D.C., as of early 2004.
The HAPCOA resolution calls on the President of the United States and Customs leadership to “take quick and effective action to ensure justice and equal and fair treatment in promotions, training, transfers and disciplinary actions for all Hispanic special agents in the Customs Service.”
A similar resolution also was adopted in the summer of 2002 by HAPCOA in relation to DEA. In particular, the resolution singles out Hutchinson, alleging that he has failed to live up to his promises to Hispanic agents.
The resolution follows:
At the 29th Annual Conference of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA), the members assembled here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Aug. 19-24, 2002, strongly take exception to the institutional racism that has been allowed to continue under the current Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Asa Hutchinson.
The men and women of HAPCOA listened to Mr. Hutchinson’s keynote speech in Sacramento, California, at their annual conference in 2001 wherein Hutchinson led the members to believe that he supported fair and equal treatment of Hispanics in the DEA, and that he would change the culture in DEA that is notorious for discriminatory practices and disparate treatment of Hispanics.
WHEREAS, in the year since Administrator Hutchinson addressed the HAPCOA members, treatment of DEA Hispanic employees has further deteriorated;
WHEREAS, the DEA Hispanic Advisory Committee was formed as part of the settlement of a discrimination class action filed by Hispanic DEA special agents in the 1980s for the specific purpose of bringing Hispanic issues of concern directly to the DEA Administrator;
WHEREAS, following Hutchinson’s keynote address in Sacramento, under his management the DEA Hispanic Advisory Committee (HAC) charter has not been extended;
WHEREAS, under the current senior management of the DEA, three former chairpersons of the Hispanic Advisory Committee, all members of the Senior Executive Service of the United States and members in good standing of HAPCOA, including two National Presidents, have been involuntarily reassigned, demoted, retaliated against, denied promotions for which they are qualified or denied due process;
WHEREAS, Administrator Hutchinson has ignored the advice and counsel of minority senior managers in both DEA Headquarters and the DEA Field Divisions;
WHEREAS, Administrator Hutchinson has been a party to continuing an insidious “good-old-boy” network thus perpetuating an atmosphere of distrust, reprisal and retaliation against minority employees for exercising their rights under the laws of the land, thereby continuing a hostile work environment for minority employees in the Drug Enforcement Administration.
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the members of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association at their annual national conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Aug. 19-24, 2002, strongly recommend that the Attorney General appoint an oversight committee to ensure that minority concerns in the DEA are properly and expeditiously addressed and resolved. HAPCOA also calls upon the President of the United States and the Attorney General to exercise appropriate and firm oversight over the Administrator of the DEA in order to end the institutional racism at the DEA and thus ensure equal treatment and equal employment opportunities for qualified Hispanics in our nation’s lead federal drug enforcement agency.
HAPCOA also sent a letter to President George W. Bush in early September 2002, which was signed by HAPCOA President Arthur R. Parra Sr.—a captain in the Chicago Police Department. The purpose of HAPCOA’s letter to the President was to make him aware of the group’s resolutions concerning Customs and DEA and to also seek his help in bringing about needed changes to address the discrimination confronted by Hispanic federal agents.
Parra says HAPCOA members adopted the resolutions and sent the letter to Bush out of a sense of “frustration.” He says Hispanic federal agents have tried to cultivate a working relationship with their agencies, but “it hasn’t worked.”
“We have made numerous pleas to get a resolution to this problem, which has been going on for years, but we’re at a stalemate,” adds Parra, speaking for HAPCOA. “We wish we could do this another way. These agents love their country. They are only asking to be treated fairly.”
As 2002 drew to a close, HAPCOA also took its case to the media. That move seemed finally to attract some attention to their issues in Washington, D.C. In mid-December 2002, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), U.S. Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, D-Texas, issued a statement weighing in on the issue:
The CHC is concerned about these issues because they affect Hispanic employees, but also because they affect the work of the Federal government….
The previous administration recognized this problem and directed the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which is the Federal Government’s Human Resources Office, to develop a plan to deal with this problem. On October 2000, President Clinton issued an Executive Order (13171) directing the heads of executive departments and agencies to establish and maintain a program for the recruitment and career development of Hispanics in federal government. Under President Bush, who has talked about the inclusion of all Americans in his Administration, we have yet to see how this Executive Order is utilized and to see an improvement in the number of Latinos in the federal workforce. Even an OPM report issued earlier this year (January 2002), highlights that the government’s overall diversity numbers are very encouraging for minorities, with the exception of Hispanics.
How does the Federal government hope to attract Hispanic employees if it appears that current workers are being treated unfairly?
Sandalio Gonzalez, special agent in charge of the DEA’s El Paso, Texas, Field Division, says the letter sent to the President in September 2002 took on even greater relevance with Hutchinson’s nomination a few months later to the undersecretary post at the new DHS.
“One of the resolutions (the DEA’s) hits Hutchinson pretty hard, and he is going to be over Customs (at DHS),” Gonzalez explains.
Gonzalez, who was president of HAPCOA when the Customs and DEA resolutions were drafted in August 2002, says the White House did not responded to HAPCOA’s letter.
“Our association (HAPCOA) is on the White House guest list, and I’ve been to two meetings at the White House as head of HAPCOA,” Gonzalez says. “It’s kind of like they use us when it’s convenient, but when HAPCOA raises an issue that is ugly, then they want us to go away. But this issue is not going away.”
Gonzalez also served for a number of years as chairperson of DEA’s Hispanic Advisory Committee, or HAC, which was established as part of a 1992 settlement agreement in an employment-related class-action lawsuit filed against DEA on behalf of Hispanic agents. HAC was created to bring the concerns of Hispanic employees directly to the attention of the DEA Administrator.
HAC’s charter, as the HAPCOA resolution points out, was allowed to lapse in 2001 under Hutchinson’s reign at DEA. However, after the HAPCOA resolutions garnered some media attention in late December 2002, Hutchinson issued an internal memo reinstating HAC. At the time, Hutchinson’s nomination to the new DHS post was awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate. His nomination was approved several weeks after he reauthorized HAC.
“Whenever a minority agent files a complaint against the government, they always fight it,” Gonzalez says, referring to the way Hispanic and other minority agents are put through the wringer when they seek to address alleged discrimination. “Never do they say, “’You’re right; let’s fix it.’ Are we always wrong?”
HAPCOA’s September 3, 2002, letter to President Bush is printed below:
Dear Mr. President:
The following letter serves to transmit the most recent resolutions passed by the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association on behalf of their Hispanic colleagues in the United States Customs Service and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. The association’s membership feels that the institutional racism and rampant discriminatory practices continually directed against Hispanic Americans by federal law enforcement agencies will no longer be tolerated, and based on your relationship with Hispanic Americans should be addressed at your level.
The Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA) is the oldest Hispanic command level law enforcement association in the nation. Its membership represents Hispanic command officers throughout the United States and Puerto Rico at every level of government.
It is disturbing for us to find that in addition to the above referenced class action against the Secretary of the Treasury, and the discrimination affecting Hispanics in the Drug Enforcement Administration, Hispanic Americans in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms within the Department of the Treasury as well as in the Immigration and Naturalization Service within the Department of Justice, are also seeking resolution to class action complaints charging violations of their civil rights.
Following the September 11, 2001, simultaneous terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., a new chapter in law enforcement was forged: national security. Having been tasked by the Executive Office of the President, demands for more vigorous and proactive involvement by law enforcement in protecting our nation became a necessity.
The Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association is aware that our Hispanic colleagues in law enforcement have continued to rise to the call formidably, but they cannot and should not continue to be violated and their efforts individually and collectively ignored at this time when law enforcement reform and community relationship are at an all-time critical stage.
On behalf of our National Executive Board and our members I ask that you and your office intervene and accelerate the necessary changes to bring about a more united America.
Arthur R. Parra, Sr.
Beyond the charges of discrimination and reprisal bubbling up within the Tactical Intelligence Center (TIC), U.S. Customs as a whole and other federal agencies, there is the broader issue of their disruptive effect on national security and the ability of the intelligence community—and the law enforcement community in general—to work efficiently and productively. With respect to that grave issue, failure to address endemic management and workplace-culture problems can literally become a life and death matter for citizens of the United States.
Unfortunately, the dysfunction within the workplace at agencies like Customs and DEA appears to have very deep roots—as the HAPCOA letter to President Bush illustrates. The following statement from a TIC analyst further drives home that point.
“Unsound personnel decisions, which were made many years ago (and some more recently) have haunted this project (TIC) and will inevitably continue to do so,” states a TIC analyst in a legal affidavit. “This is most unfortunate, not only for the project in general, but for all the affected individuals [management included], their families, and the Customs Service as a whole. We waste time, energy, assets and funds attempting to settle irreconcilable disputes such as this, when they should never occur….”
Next in Chapter 13:
DEA shipments of heroin from Pakistan to New York on commercial airliners, called controlled deliveries, are linked to alleged Customs corruption, including the suspicious drug-overdose deaths of two federal agents at JFK airport in New York City. The heroin shipments via commercial airlines represent a major security concern in the wake of 9/11, with evidence pointing to at least one case in which an airliner was blown up in flight due to a controlled delivery gone awry.
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