WASHINGTON — The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security and his top aides have ordered employees to remove harmful findings from investigative reports of domestic violence and sexual misconduct by agents of the department’s law enforcement agencies, according to documents obtained by DailyExpertNews and two government leaders. officials familiar with the investigations.
A survey found that more than 10,000 employees from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration had experienced sexual harassment or misconduct at work — more than a third of those surveyed, according to an unpublished draft report from December 2020.
The draft report also described a pattern of the agencies using cash payments, with payouts of up to $255,000, to resolve sexual harassment complaints without investigating or punishing the perpetrators. But senior officials in the inspector general’s office objected to that finding, suggesting in written comments that it be removed from the report, which was never published.
The Inspector General, Joseph V. Cuffari, also ordered his staff to remove portions of another draft report that found that internal investigations revealed that dozens of agents working with the agencies had committed domestic violence but that they had “little to no discipline”. Mr Cuffari also wanted a section to be removed stating that the agencies had “put victims and the public at risk for further violence” by allowing the perpetrators to keep their firearms; the inclusion of such findings, he wrote in an internal memo, would make his office look like it “secondarily questioned DHS disciplinary decisions without full facts.”
The internal documents were first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group in Washington. The organization took the information to The Times, which confirmed its authenticity with two government officials familiar with the investigations. The draft sexual misconduct report notes that the fieldwork for the investigation ended in October 2019, but the agency has not published the findings.
The Inspector General’s office did not answer specific questions about the investigation, but defended the office’s work in a statement.
“All reports initiated and published during Mr. Cuffari’s tenure,” the statement said, “meet appropriate quality standards.”
Asked about the omitted findings, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said the inspector general was independent from the department, and that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas had made it clear “that sexual harassment and assault are not tolerated. †
The spokesman added that the department “has no involvement whatsoever in internal OIG deliberations or decisions,” referring to the Inspector General’s office.
Mr. Cuffari, a Trump appointee who has served as Inspector General since July 2019, has blocked previous investigations, against his staff’s recommendations. He blocked investigations into the Secret Service’s role in the violent spread of protests against police brutality outside the White House in 2020, and into the spread of Covid-19 at that agency. He also postponed an investigation into whether senior agency officials demoted an employee who criticized the Trump administration.
Inspectors General are independent, internal watchdogs for federal departments and agencies, although they can be removed by the president. Donald J. Trump fired or demoted a number of inspectors general in his last year in office, a violation of standards that undermined the office’s traditional independence. The Biden administration had also considered removing several controversial Inspectors General appointed by Mr Trump, but ultimately objected — wary of further eroding the government standards it had vowed to restore.
The investigations into sexual misconduct and domestic violence took place as law enforcement agencies within the department — most notably the Border Patrol, which is part of Customs and Border Protection — struggled to recruit women and move them into leadership positions. They tracked high-profile incidents of sexual misconduct over the past decade.
Ed Gonzalez, President Biden’s candidate to lead ICE, faces uncertain prospects for confirmation after a police affidavit surfaced last year accusing him of domestic violence against his wife. Both Mr Gonzalez and his wife have denied the allegations.
The investigation into sexual misconduct, which began before Mr. Cuffari took over as Inspector General, included a 2018 survey of employees of the department’s police stations. Of the approximately 28,000 respondents, more than 10,000 said they had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in their workplace.
Of those who had experienced sexual harassment or misconduct, 78 percent said they had not reported the incident.
The draft report cited more than 1,800 employee allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct committed by other federal employees from October 2011 to February 2018 with the department’s law enforcement agency, including cases of “secret video recording in bathrooms, unwelcome sexual advances and inappropriate sexual comments.”
Referring to those allegations, the draft also said agencies within the department “did not consistently charge and discipline employees for violations related to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.”
Immigration and customs enforcement had an excessive number of reported incidents, with 445 allegations of sexual misconduct and cases involving an agency with fewer than 20,000 employees. By contrast, Customs and Border Protection, which has about 63,000 employees, had 382 reported incidents.
The agencies paid 21 employees nearly $1 million in settlements of sexual harassment complaints over six years. According to the draft report on sexual misconduct, the inspectors found “in most cases” no record of an investigation or disciplinary action.
Kristen Fredricks, the Inspector General’s chief of staff, objected to including that finding in the final report.
“Incorrect premise,” Ms. Fredricks wrote in comments on the draft document. “Why/how do you correlate settlements with investigations and disciplinary action???”
Customs and Border Protection paid $255,000 in 2016 to resolve a sexual harassment complaint, according to the draft report, after an employee alleged her supervisor made inappropriate sexual comments, asked her for sex, and then offered job and training opportunities remembered when she refused his advances. But the agency’s records showed no evidence of an investigation into misconduct or disciplinary action, the draft said.
The draft report on domestic violence found 30 cases in which law enforcement officers who had engaged in domestic violence were allowed to keep their jobs with the agencies and continue to carry firearms. The officers in those cases had not been convicted of any crime, but internal investigations by their agencies had revealed that they had “committed domestic violence.”
A federal law known as the Lautenberg Amendment prohibits domestic abusers from carrying a firearm if convicted. The draft report notes that officers convicted of domestic violence should be removed from office for being banned from carrying a firearm, a condition of their employment.
In one case detailed in the draft, a customs officer was arrested and charged with assault after punching his wife in the face, but entered into a plea deal to avoid a criminal conviction that would prevent him from carrying a weapon. The agency initially proposed to fire the officer, but instead suspended him for five days and eventually allowed him to keep his firearm.
The officer went on to assault another woman less than two years later, according to the draft report. He was suspended for 15 days and then reinstated. He was allowed to keep his weapon again.
“Employees who have engaged in domestic violence in law enforcement positions with authority to possess firearms perpetuate the risk the Lautenberg amendment seeks to address,” the draft report said, adding that “agencies put victims and the public at risk for further violence.” by preventing weapons from getting into the hands of these individuals.”
In an internal memo, Mr Cuffari, the inspector general, instructed employees to remove those findings, writing that the office risked “appearing biased.”
The final version of the Domestic Violence Report, published in November 2020, retroactively narrowed the scope of the investigation and did not refer to the cases of officers caught committing domestic violence by their agency.
“We have not included findings on disciplinary decisions where such findings could resemble the disciplinary decisions of decision-making officials,” the published report said in an appendix.
Senior assistants in the inspector general’s office later made similar objections to material in the draft sexual misconduct report. Tom Kait, a deputy inspector general, instructed employees to remove a portion of the draft describing how agencies in the department often accused employees accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct of general misdemeanors — for example, “inappropriate conduct’ – rather than with regard to offenses to sexual activity.
“I think these should come out,” Mr Kait said in review comments, “because we question the disciplinary outcome in these cases.”
Ellen McSweeney, a senior advisor in the Inspector General’s office, also instructed employees to delete references to past high-profile incidents and reports of sexual misconduct to agencies in the department. She also asked for a section to be deleted describing how sexual misconduct can lead to “low morale” and “reputational damage” at an agency.
“Anti-Inflammatory – why do we need this here,” wrote Ms. McSweeney of a section of the draft that referred to a case in which customs and border guards were accused of detaining and assaulting colleagues at a “rape table” at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The Inspector General’s Office had opened an investigation into the incidents and three officers were arrested. One of the officers, Tito Catota, pleaded guilty to “violently assaulting, hindering, intimidating and interfering with the victims” in 2018. The other two officers, Parmenio Perez and Michael Papagni, were acquitted in 2019.