WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday it would review disciplinary proceedings for its employees after DailyExpertNews reported that the agency’s inspector general had removed harmful findings from investigative reports of domestic violence and employee sexual misconduct.
“This spring’s deeply disturbing reports underscored the need for urgent action,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement citing the Times article, adding that the changes would include “centralizing the decision-making process for disciplinary actions” so that “accusations of serious misconduct are handled by a dedicated group of well-trained individuals who are not the direct supervisors of the employees.”
Mr Mayorkas announced a review of the department’s disciplinary process in April, after The Times published his article; it was based on internal documents first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, an independent Washington watchdog group.
An internal DHS investigation found that more than 10,000 employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at work — more than a third of the respondents, according to a draft report.
The draft also described a pattern in which the agencies used cash payments, with payouts of up to $255,000, to resolve sexual harassment complaints without investigating or punishing the perpetrators.
But top officials of the department’s Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari said in written comments that the sexual misconduct findings should be removed because they were “inflammatory” or “challenged the disciplinary outcome in these cases.”
Mr. Cuffari also ordered his staff to remove portions of another draft report on domestic violence committed by agents of the department’s law enforcement agencies, saying it was “a questionable DHS disciplinary decision without full facts.”
The announced reforms highlight a deeper rift between the Homeland Security Department and its inspector general. While Mr Mayorkas has taken steps to address the allegations in the reports, Mr Cuffari and other senior officials in the Inspector General’s office have instead either downplayed the significance of the findings or vehemently defended their removal.
The Inspector General’s office “agrees with Secretary Mayorkas that DHS should be a professional environment free from sexual harassment and other misconduct,” said a statement from Mr. Cuffari’s office. “We also support the secretary’s efforts to promote accountability. We look forward to reviewing the important reforms the secretary instructed the department to implement, and we will continue to do our part to oversee these matters in the department.”
Inspectors Generals are independent, internal watchdogs for federal agencies, and Homeland Security officials have said they were previously unaware of the omitted findings of the reports.
In a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Mr. Cuffari described an agency crippled by dysfunction, blaming senior officials in his office who oversaw the investigations for deliberately withholding of information for him – and also criticized the “intransigence” of the inspectors who prepared the reports.
Mr Cuffari said in the letter that he may never release the sexual misconduct report — which has gone unpublished since an almost complete draft was circulated in December 2020 — because the findings are now too old.
“The report was plagued with issues from the start,” wrote Mr. Cuffari, adding that “these issues caused serious delays, and as a result, the information in the most recent draft report does not meet the ‘currency’ criterion found in Article 2 of the Inspector General Act.”
Instead, Mr. Cuffari that his office would initiate a new investigation into sexual misconduct, including a new survey of DHS employees. He has also volunteered to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the two investigations into domestic violence and sexual misconduct. The congressional committees investigating Mr. Cuffari have not publicly responded to that offer.
Gordon S. Heddell, an inspector general for the Department of Defense under President Barack Obama and for the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush, criticized Mr. Cuffari for publicly blaming his subordinates, adding that an inspector-general General should take responsibility and undermine the problems without his subordinates.
“I would never have written this,” said Mr. Heddell, who now works as a private consultant. “To me, what he says is, ‘I run a very dysfunctional office.'”