The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) obtained documents from the DHS Office of Inspector-General (OIG) indicating that the agency’s independent watchdog has been suppressing, delaying, and watering down information about serious patterns of sexual harassment and domestic abuse within the Department’s law enforcement agencies.
The POGO report, “Protecting the Predators at DHS,” offers some shocking findings, as does the New York Times’s April 7 coverage of the report. They include:
- A 2018 OIG survey found that more than 10,000 CBP, ICE, Secret Service, and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at work. That is more than a third of the 28,000 survey respondents. Of these, 78 percent said they did not report the incident, often out of a belief that doing so would derail their careers. Examples included “surreptitious videotaping in bathrooms, unwelcome sexual advances and inappropriate sexual comments.” The survey was part of an OIG report for which fieldwork ended two and a half years ago, in October 2019—but the report had still not seen the light of day.
- Of 1,800 sexual harassment cases within the Department, 445 were at ICE and 382 were at CBP.
- The unpublished OIG report found that DHS agencies paid 21 employees nearly $1 million in settlements from sexual harassment-related complaints over six years, but there are few records of any investigations or disciplinary actions against the aggressors. One victim received a $255,000 payout. Senior officials at the OIG objected to mentioning these settlements in the as-yet unpublished report.
- The unpublished OIG report notes that “women made up only 5 percent of CBP’s Border Patrol workforce,” well below the federal law enforcement average of 15 percent.
- Another OIG report, published in 2020, covered DHS law-enforcement personnel found to have committed domestic violence when off duty. Inspector-General Joseph Cuffari and his staff pushed to withhold many key findings that had appeared in this report’s earlier drafts. Initially, the report found that agents who committed domestic abuse received “little to no discipline.” In an internal memo, Cuffari ordered that removed, calling it “second-guessing D.H.S. disciplinary decisions without full facts.” This language is troubling, as second-guessing disciplinary decisions is something that inspectors-general are often compelled to do.
- Employing law enforcement personnel with a demonstrated propensity for abusing domestic partners and family members “raises questions about someone’s fitness for the job if they abuse someone they have committed their life to,” James Wong, a former CBP deputy assistant commissioner for internal affairs, told POGO. “How are they going to treat a total stranger they have no relationship with [like a migrant]? Who’s going to stop them?” The OIG report’s draft had raised concerns that allowing these agents to keep their weapons “put[s] victims and the public at risk of further violence,” but Cuffari ordered that language removed for risk of “appearing biased.”
POGO, a non-governmental watchdog group, has published past reports and allegations critical of Cuffari, whom Donald Trump named to the DHS Inspector-General post in 2019. “The suppressed DHS watchdog reports on sexual misconduct and domestic violence are part of a pattern where Cuffari has appeared unwilling to oversee his department as an independent watchdog,” POGO’s report contends. “Sadly, Cuffari himself has an undeniable pattern of removing significant facts and evidence from major reports. As a result of this pattern, his independence and impartiality are in question.”
“Only hours after the story appeared,” POGO notes, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “announced he had become ‘aware of draft unpublished reports from the Office of the Inspector General that underscore the need for immediate action.’ Mayorkas announced the creation of a ‘working group’ to ‘conduct a 45-day review of employee misconduct discipline processes currently in effect throughout DHS.'”
On April 26, 2022, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to Inspector-General Cuffari voicing concern about POGO’s findings (original link). “Sexual harassment and misconduct in agency ranks always demand immediate action,” reads the letter, which includes a list of questions to be answered by May 17, 2022. “Any efforts by an OIG to obscure or downplay the seriousness or pervasiveness of the issue, or to improperly delay releasing evidence of misconduct, are inappropriate.”
Cuffari responded to the senators with a May 13 letter blaming “senior DHS OIG officials who preceded me,” “the intransigence of some inspectors,” and OIG staff withholding information from him. (original link). The Inspector-General insisted that the withheld reports were not up to established standards, but the letter did not clearly explain why quality improvements would be delayed for years for reports with such striking and significant findings.
“This is not the response of someone committed to meeting the statutory mandate for inspectors general,” read a Twitter thread from POGO’s director of public policy, Liz Hempowicz. “I would never have written this,” Gordon Heddell, a former Defense Department inspector-general, said of the letter in a June 16 New York Times article. “To me, what he’s saying is, ‘I’m leading a very dysfunctional office.’”
On June 16, DHS announced an effort to reform employee misconduct discipline processes. “When Secretary Mayorkas was made aware of the [unpublished draft OIG sexual harassment] report, he immediately launched a 45-day review into Department-wide employee misconduct discipline processes,” the Department’s statement reads (original link). It continues, “Centralizing disciplinary processes will ensure that allegations of serious misconduct are handled by a dedicated group of well-trained individuals, who are not the employees’ immediate supervisors, at each DHS component agency.”
“The announced reforms underscore a deepening rift between the Homeland Security Department and its inspector general,” the New York Times reported on June 16. “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 fiercely defended their removal.”
— Adam Zagorin, Nick Schwellenbach, Protecting the Predators at DHS (Washington: Project on Government Oversight, April 7, 2022) https://www.pogo.org/investigation/2022/04/protecting-the-predators-at-dhs/.
— Chris Cameron, “Homeland Security Watchdog Omitted Damaging Findings From Reports” (New York, The New York Times, April 7, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/07/us/politics/homeland-security-inspector-general.html.
— Sen. Richard Durbin, Sen. Charles Grassley, Letter to DHS Inspector-General Joseph V. Cuffari (Washington: U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, April 26, 2022) https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2022-04-26%20RJD%20CEG%20Letter%20to%20IG%20Cuffari.pdf.
— Letter from DHS Office of Inspector General to Senators Durbin and Grassley (Washington: DHS OIG, May 13, 2022) https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/IG-Cuffari-response-to-Chair-Durbin-and-RM-Grassley-20220513-Redacted.pdf.
— “Tweet from Liz Hempowicz @lizhempowicz” (United States: Twitter, May 18, 2022) https://twitter.com/lizhempowicz/status/1527004986613301251.
— “Secretary Mayorkas Directs DHS To Reform Employee Misconduct Discipline Processes” (Washington: Department of Homeland Security, June 16, 2022) https://www.dhs.gov/news/2022/06/16/secretary-mayorkas-directs-dhs-reform-employee-misconduct-discipline-processes.
— Chris Cameron, “Homeland Security Department Will Make Changes to Its Disciplinary Process” (New York: The New York Times, June 16, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/16/us/politics/homeland-security-department.html.