The top watchdog for the Homeland Security Department told a House oversight panel Wednesday that turf battles over internal corruption investigations have subsided and his agency is not backlogged with employee misconduct cases, but he deflected questions about an ongoing criminal investigation of a Texas branch office.
Acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards, testifying before the House government reform subcommittee, said his 219 investigators nationwide can handle the 1,591 cases of alleged employee misconduct open as of July 15 and are working collaboratively with other agencies on many of them.
"There is absolutely no turf battles" among his office, other Homeland Security agencies and the FBI, Edwards told lawmakers. "There is no duplication" of efforts, he said.
Wednesday's hearing was the latest in a recent series of congressional appearances by the Homeland Security inspector general and other top DHS officials regarding the oversight and ethical standards of the department.
The hearing also followed reports last spring by the Center for Investigative Reporting detailing a federal grand jury probe led by the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI into alleged misconduct by an inspector general's branch office in south Texas.
The investigation involves agents in McAllen, Texas, who allegedly were instructed to doctor reports to show "investigative activity" ahead of an internal inspection last fall.
Several agents and top officials subsequently have been placed on administrative leave, including Thomas M. Frost, the top criminal investigator, and a deputy, John Ryan, pending the outcome of the grand jury investigation. Two more high-ranking officials were transferred out of the agency.
In recent months, the overwhelmed inspector general's office has knocked down its caseload with the help of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection by transferring more than 650 misconduct and corruption investigations to the internal affairs units of those two agencies.
For the past several years, the inspector general has carried a caseload that has not dropped below 2,000 open investigations, while investigators have only closed a fraction of open cases. The watchdog agency, which aims to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse for the federal government's third-largest department of 220,000 employees, had 2,361 open investigations as of March.
The inspector general's policy has been to open investigations on all allegations of corruption within the Department of Homeland Security. Agents have said top officials did not want to work with other anti-corruption agencies, such as the FBI, which caused a backlog.
Weeks after the grand jury probe became public, Edwards, along with officials from Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, agreed to the case transfers in April and began moving them in May, starting with about 377 cases.
In June, the inspector general's office shuttled roughly 290 more unresolved cases for further review by the other agencies. Those cases included unidentified employees.
Edwards declined to answer specific questions in public about the grand jury investigation because it is still ongoing, but he confirmed its existence. He acknowledged that eight employees have been put on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, as previously reported by CIR.
Rep. Todd R. Platts, R-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee, said he would consider calling more hearings once the investigation is concluded.
"Because of the importance of DHS's mission, it is crucial that it have a fully capable inspector general - and staff - to provide oversight and accountability," he said in his opening statement.
Platts also raised concerns that the case transfers could result in wrongdoing going undetected if the receiving agencies are overburdened.
Lawmakers pointed to the fact that Edwards serves only in an acting capacity as inspector general and blamed the U.S. Senate for its inaction on confirmation votes, which raises the risk of fraud and abuse in the U.S. government. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who said the grand jury investigation has "huge national implications," asked if inspector general agents were under pressure to complete cases, which caused them to do sloppy work or encouraged them to take shortcuts.
"You gotta be very worried when the watchdog organization is having some problems," he said.
The other two Homeland Security officials who testified highlighted what they described as the limited extent of corruption within the ranks while emphasizing improved relationships among the agencies that police corruption.
Daniel Ragsdale, the acting deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that investigations were analyzed for prosecution potential and to prioritize cases that were particularly sensitive. He said that of the original cases that were transferred - which had increased slightly to 415 - 195 were still open, and 155 had moved to Aguilar's agency for administrative action. Fewer than 100 had been closed.
David Aguilar, the acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, underscored the threat of corruption, but said only 141 of the 47,000 agents and officers within the agency have been arrested or indicted since October 2004. Of those, a little more than 70 percent - 102 - are considered to have compromised the agency's mission by breaking laws they had sworn to uphold.
He attributed the efforts by drug syndicates and other criminal organizations to corrupt border officials to the agency's success in combating illegal activity. He praised the agencies' collaboration to address corruption, calling the level of cooperation and transparency among the three agencies "unprecedented."
Officials have tussled in the past, both in Washington and around the country. In a 2009 memorandum, Frost, the top official on administrative leave, ordered his counterpart at Customs and Border Protection to stop sharing information with other agencies without permission.
In 2010, then-Inspector General Richard Skinner wrote to Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., calling the relationship with Customs and Border Protection "intractable."
The FBI, which also has jurisdiction over Homeland Security agencies, has also clashed with the inspector general over investigations.
Edwards said new agreements in recent years have eased tensions among the agencies, while working relationships in the field are great.
"I don't want to sit here and say it's a perfect marriage," he said. The FBI "relationship was not the best, but it's getting better."